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Wednesday, February 28, 2001

Let's Talk
Duncan Graham-Rowe


A computerised toddler called Hal is the first artificial intelligence program to "understand" everyday language, say its creators.
The software-based toddler was developed by Artificial Intelligence NV (Ai) of Tel Aviv, Israel. It is said to have fooled independent experts into believing they were reading conversations between an adult and a real 15-month-old child.
Ai's chief scientist Jason Hutchens compares the potential impact of the technology to the invention of electricity. "Once it exists there are millions of uses for it," he says.
He predicts that Hal could carry out commands issued without rigid syntax, and could also cope with confusing but similarly structured sentences such as "Time flies like an arrow" and "Fruit flies like a banana". It might even have a sense of humour.
Armed with a collection of learning algorithms, Hal is taught language by a single "carer" who types in children's stories and responds to its utterances like a parent. Instead of telling it how to learn language, Hal figures this out for itself, says Hutchens. "The whole point is that we don't know how it's doing it."
True natural language processing has been the holy grail of artificial intelligence research ever since British mathematician Alan Turing threw down the gauntlet in his eponymous test for intelligence.
But what most people appear to have ignored, says Hutchens, is another suggestion Turing made. "He said that the best way to pass the test is to build a baby machine and train it."