Will we ever really talk with the machines?

John Naughton
[ Sun. Mar. 6. 2016 ]

Like many people nowadays, I do not talk on my iPhone as much as talk to it. That’s because it runs a program called Siri (Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface) that works as an intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator. It’s useful, in a way. If I ask it for “weather in London today”, it’ll present an hour-by-hour weather forecast. Tell it to “phone home” and it’ll make a decent effort to find the relevant number. Ask it to “text James” and it will come back with: “What do you want to say to James?” Not exactly Socratic dialogue, but it has its uses.

Ask Siri: “What’s the meaning of life?”, however, and it loses its nerve. “Life,” it replies, “is a principle or force that is considered to underlie the distinctive quality of animate beings. I guess that includes me.” Ten points for that last sentence. But the question: “What should I do with my life?” really stumps it. “Interesting question” is all it can do, which suggests that we haven’t really moved much beyond Joseph Weizenbaum’s famous Eliza program, which was created in the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory between 1964 and 1966. . . . 

. . . [O]ften what really matters to us humans is stuff that we have difficulty articulating.

What’s brought this to mind is an extraordinary interview with Stephen Wolfram that’s just appeared on John Brockman’s Edge.org site. The term “genius” is often overused, but I think it’s merited in Wolfram’s case. Those of us who bear the scars from school and university years spent wrestling with advanced maths are forever in his debt, because he invented Mathematica, a computer program that takes much of the pain out of solving equations, graphing complex functions and other arcane tasks. But he’s also worked in computer science and mathematical physics and is the founder of the WolframAlpha “computational knowledge engine”, which is one of the wonders of the online world. . . .


  • AI
  • WolframAlpha
  • Mathematica
  • Siri

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John Naughton