Out of Scope June 2009

Alex, Boot Up Your Next Contestant

IBM is playing games again. About 12 years ago, it created a supercomputer called Deep Blue that went head to disk with Gary Kasparov in a game of masters-level chess?and won a match, if somewhat controversially. Now the company is planning to take on the venerable TV game show Jeopardy! according to a recent article by John Markoff on NYTImes.com.

IBM, notes the article, is almost finished with a computer program designed to take on human Jeopardy! contestants to further push forward the field of artificial intelligence. ?Watson,? which the creators of the program named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson Sr., is designed to have ?an almost infinite range of relationships and to make subtle comparisons and interpretations.?

Interacting with humans on our turf isn?t easy. Which IBM researchers readily admit: ?The big goal is to get computers to be able to converse in human terms,? said the team leader, David Ferrucci, an IBM artificial intelli-gence researcher. ?And we?re not there yet.?

The team?s real challenge is getting Watson to think on its feet, rather than simply hit a database. It must understand human language and questions, including ones that include puns and analogies. Preliminary indications are that Watson?s well on its way to doing all this. But can it beat a human? That?s the real final Jeopardy! question.

GE Can See … Holograms

Would you like to pay 10 cents or less per gigabyte of storage? Would you like one disk to be able to hold the data equivalent of 100 DVDs? General Electric thinks you?ll answer ?yes? to both these questions, and researchers there believe they have made a digital storage breakthrough that can provide all this and more, according to a recent story on TechSpot.com.

GE technologists recently demonstrated a micro-holographic storage material that can support 500GB of storage on a standard DVD-size disk. Researchers have been working with holographic storage for quite some time, but, as yet, there hasn?t been any commercially available product based on the technology. But GE thinks it?s close.

TechSpot.com reports that the breakthrough involves improvements to the materials used for the optical media, allowing increased amounts of light to be reflected by the holograms, thus enabling the holograms to be scaled down to even smaller size. The technology is still in development, but GE notes that the format is similar enough to current optical storage that its micro-holographic players will be backward-compatible with current DVDs and CDs.

IT Jockeys Are Naturals for Mind-Over-Matter Toys

Concentrate. Really hard. Are there any ping-pong balls floating around the room? Well, there could be soon if toymakers Mattel and Uncle Milton have anything to say about it.

A story on Washingtonpost.com tells us that competing mind-over-matter toys are about to hit the marketplace. These are the first ?brain-computer interfaces? to hit the mainstream consumer market. They allow the user to control objects with thought, commonly called ?telekinesis.? Basically, the user dons a headpiece that contains a simple EEG, concentrates on something?anything?and the brain activity causes a fan to spin faster and faster, thereby pushing a ping-pong ball into the air. (Check out the video: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/video/2009/04/22/VI2009042203236.html.)

Apparently, multitaskers have a terrible time focusing long and hard enough to make it work. But some individuals, such as copy editors and ?IT jockeys,? are naturals at it.

Mattel?s Mindflex and Uncle Milton?s Force Trainer are destined for the market soon. But there?s some serious science here that has the government interested. DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is using similar technology for the neural control of mechanical arms, hands and legs.