PM Pick

The Lighter Side of Artificial Intelligence

Glenn McDonald

The scary-smart 20Q AI project asks: Animal, vegetable, mineral or legendary '70s rock star?

So, remember the 20 Questions game? You think of a person or thing, and the other guy tries to guess the answer using 20 yes-or-no questions. It's a classic time killer, good for long car rides, roller coaster lines, and waiting out the goddamn Bush administration.

I'm pleased and moderately frightened to report that the game has made a successful transition to the Internet Age. The 20Q initiative is an ongoing project in Artificial Intelligence (AI) that uses an insanely complex Web-based neural network to simulate a game of 20 Questions. You think of something — person, place, thing, abstract idea; doesn't matter — and start answering questions posed by the 20Q AI. The questions posed can seem impossibly random, some examples might be: "Can you buy it?" "Does it have four corners?" "Does it like to be petted?"

You can answer Yes, No, Unknown, Irrelevant, Sometimes, Probably or Doubtful. After the program has posed an adequate number of questions — often less than 20 — it will attempt to guess the term you're thinking of. Prepare to be freaked directly out at how smart this thing is.

The 20Q AI was invented in 1988 as a smallish database passed around on floppy disc amongst a group of friends. The game moved online in 1995, and has been growing and "learning" ever since. It makes its guesses based on what it has learned from previous games, and is not programmed with information in any traditional way. As such, it's more of an autonomous information base that reflects the knowledge of the millions of people who have already played it. According to Wikipedia, the online 20Q AI has about 10,000,000 synaptic connections, with about 10,000 objects in its knowledgebase.

Since moving online, the 20Q technology has been patented and licensed to several third-party organizations. A handheld version for kids, by Radica Games, has won several industry awards, and Burger King licensed a version of the game to power a Darth Vader-narrated promotional tie-in with Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. 20Q played its 40,000,000th game in July of 2006,

The kids' version of the game was my first introduction to 20Q, and it came about rather randomly. On a very manly canoe trip with manly college buddies, somebody picked up the game at a local hobby shop as a gift for his daughter. We manly men then proceeded to geek out on the game for about three days straight, eschewing all previous plans of fishing, drinking, poker, etc.

What we discovered was that the game is, as advertised, about 80-90 percent accurate. And this is just the kids' game, which uses a smaller database and does not "learn" as the online game does. We threw some weird concepts at it, too. Among the terms it accurately guessed: "carburetor," "e-mail," "infinity" and, um, "shit" (or "poop," according to the kid-friendly AI).

Since going online, the 20Q project has added a few satellite AIs, databases specific to cultural categories such as rock and pop music, TV and movies, and sports. Spend a little time here, and you'll find the game can open up some very interesting pop-cultural and even philosophical issues. Some of the questions posed by the AI can really make you think.

For instance, I thought of the word "president" and came across a few stumpers. Sometimes things can get ambiguous, depending on whether you're referring to the individual or to the office of the presidency, but I was surprised at how oddly thought-provoking the queries could be. (These are all real questions returned by the 20Q AI):

"Can it be bought?"
"Is it clever?"
"Does it perform?"
"Can you control it?" (I answered "no," although occasionally Congress gives it the old college try.)
"Can you find it in a church?"
"Does it provide protection?"
"Is it brown?" (Hmm... 200 years of old white guys so far, I'm not holding my breath.)

The 20Q engine eventually got it right, after a few run-throughs. It made some interesting wrong guesses, too, including "clown", "criminal", and "ninja."

I'm here to tell you that the 20Q website is good, creepy fun for all ages. It really is astounding how often the AI gets it right. Starting from "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral or Other," it successfully guessed such varied items as: "time" (17 questions), "espresso" (17 questions), "mobile phone" (20 questions), and "algorithm" (20 questions). The Pop & Rock AI guessed "Lou Reed" in 18 questions (although for some reason it guessed Paul Stanley first.). The Movies & TV database got "Battlestar Galactica" in 20 questions, and the Sports AI got "The Stanley Cup" in 17.

I've long been comfortable with the fact that computers are smarter than I am, but there's something vaguely disturbing about a computer being better at political and pop culture references. It makes me nervous. Just consider: By asking millions of people 20 questions about whatever crazy-ass thing we want to think up, the 20Q AI can now accurately guess, within 20 questions, any other crazy-ass thing we want to think up. This way madness lies. I've considered thinking about my social security number and seeing what it comes up with, but I'm too afraid to try.

You go first.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.