AI for $13

I was skeptical when my wife handed me a small plastic toy saying, "think of something, after twenty questions it will guess."   But twenty questions later it answered correctly.  Weird and a little freaky.

20Q is featured today in Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools.  He provides some interesting brackground information:

Burned into its 8-bit chip is a neural net that has been learning for 17
years. Inventor Robin Burgener programmed a simple neural net on a DOS machine
1988. He taught it 20 questions about a cat. He than passed the program around
to friends on a floppy and had them challenge the neural net with their yes/no
answers to the object they had in mind. The neural net learns only when it plays
a game; no data is added except for the yes/no answers of visitors. So the more
people who test it, the more they teach it. In 1995 Burgener put the now robust
neural net onto the new web where anyone could play it (that is, train it) 24
hours a day. And they did. Burgener’s genius was to turn the hard tedious work
of training a neural net into a fun game for humans.

Last year, after 1 million rounds of 20 questions online, the neural net had
accumulated 10 million synaptic associations. It has a 73% success rate of
guessing what you thought. Burgener then compressed the 20Q code to run on a
chip, and had the neural net select 2,000 of the most popular 10,000 objects it
then knew about. He then had the neural net select out the most useful 250,000
synaptic connections related to those 2,000 objects, and hard wired that
learning into the chip in the orb….

The toy is remarkable. Because it is so small, so autonomous, its
intelligence is shocking to the unprepared. Most children can’t stump it, and if
you stick to objects it will stump smart adults about 80% of the time with 20
questions and most of the time with an additional 5 questions. I love to watch
people’s reactions when they think of a "hard" thing, and after a seemingly
irrational set of questions you are convinced are dumb, the sly ball tells you
what you had in mind….

right now, for ten bucks, you can get an amazing little artificial
intelligence, about as smart as an insect — but an insect which specializes in
guessing what object you are thinking of. And in that part of the brain, it’s
smarter than you are.

Thanks also to Boing Boing Blog for the link.