Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Friday 24/3/2006Fifty years since the term was first coined, we're still not noticeably closer to making artificial intelligence. What we are good at, though — so good, in fact, it seems impossible to avoid — is artificial mischievousness.

Friday 24/3/2006

Fifty years since the term was first coined, we're still not noticeably closer to making artificial intelligence. What we are good at, though — so good, in fact, it seems impossible to avoid — is artificial mischievousness.

My Outlook client tells me primly that my inbox is full, and I'd better do something with the 6MB attachment that I've just received from a hapless PR (the attachment, of course, was silently generated by another piece of Microsoft software: the PR just thought she was sending me a copy of a few PowerPoint slides that contain about five hundred characters in total). That's OK, I'll just move the email to another account. Oh no, forwarding is not allowed, says Outlook. Didn't I just tell you your inbox was full? And so it goes.

This weekend, I'm going to visit my parents for Mothering Sunday, because I am a dutiful son (ho!) but mostly because of Netgear. The parental wireless router decided to lose all its settings last week, resulting in a "Google seems to have stopped working" call from the retired country parson. Now, I have set up all sorts of VNC support for the family computers as well as access to the router itself: none of this helps when the thing wakes up one morning and thinks it's a small pot of jam.

After some joyous telephone support from me (and some rather more effective help from the praiseworthy Zen Internet), the router was resurrected and my father's PC reconnected. My mother's tablet PC, however, was not: that needed another call from me to reset the WEP security. But still it refused to work. Yet more telephonic diagnosis revealed that the tablet PC's wireless adaptor had yellow-plinged in the system applet with an Error 10. Error 10 means "Something bad has happened. Good luck". Hence the visit.

And so this morning saw frantic pre-work packing. Laptop, thumbdrive full of Sysinternals magic (I love these people more than my own kidneys), radio, spare socks, toothbrush — all the essentials to survive a weekend in the Fens. I also threw in a small purple gizmo, a 20 Questions game that I got for Christmas and that I thought might amuse the folks.

This game is a clever little thing and surprisingly effective. It asks questions on a small red display and works out the animal, vegetable or mineral you were thinking of with quite uncanny skill. Magic or a pocket Bayesian inference engine? You decide. It also makes a truly annoying selection of bleepish noises while doing this: you can turn this off. I have.

Somewhere between the flat and the bus stop, the gizmo unmutes. I'm standing at the bus stop, listening to Boom Bip on the iPod and generally zoned out, when a small and wrinkled black lady taps me on the shoulder.

"Excuse me," she says. "Your phone is ringing"

"Uh?" I pop out the cans and check the Nokia. Nothing has disturbed its slumber, and anyway I have it on vibrate.

Then I hear it too, coming from the depths of my bag. It sounds like a robot taunting a small child. Neeer-NEEER-bleep-bleep-NEEER.

I open the bag. Silence. I dig around: there are limits to how far you can excavate a weekend bag at a bus stop in Holloway, and I reach them without discovering the culprit. It's gone to earth. I zip up. Still silence. Ah well.

The bus comes, and I hoist the bag onto my back. "Neeer-NEEER-bleep-bleep NEEER". The lady looks at me with a mixture of pity and disdain.

For the rest of the journey, we play our merry game of hide and seek, of silence and tease. It's in there still, due to my unwillingness to pull out my smalls in front of my colleagues, and doubtless will entertain and appal everyone on the 19:45 to King's Lynn.

AI, we can't do. AM, we cannot avoid.

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