Sunday, May 15, 2005

20 Questions

Have you seen the 20 Questions site? This is basically an ever-growing neural network cleverly disguised as an addictive game of "20 Questions." Created by a brilliant Canadian named Robin Burgener back in 1988 and ported to the web in 1995, 20Q has been learning and growing smarter through it's interactions with the millions of people who have played it.

It's a lot of fun to play: You simply think of anything (Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, or even Love, Fear, the color Blue...) and it tries to guess it within twenty questions. 73% of the time, it gets it right. Impressive.

But still, when you're playing online it's easy to imagine some sort of massive, parallel-processing server somewhere crunching all those electro-synaptic connections. Far more impressive is the handheld pocket version, which is about the size of a yoyo, lightweight, and terrifying. I never really grokked the weirdness of this thing until Kevin Kelly covered it on his Cool Tools site. As he points out in his review:

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.

I can attest that I have now experienced this shock firsthand and observed it in others. By sheer coincidence, a friend had one of these suckers out on their coffee table last night and I decided the first time out to try to see if it could guess "stereo speaker." After twenty questions, none of which were anything like, "Do you listen to it?" or "Does it play music?" I was pretty convinced I had it stumped. After some taunting ("I can read you like a book!") it said, "I am are thinking of...a stereo speaker?"

Hard to describe the feeling I got at that moment. It felt like genuine psi!

It doesn't get it every time, but when it nails you it feels really weird. My friend Craig tried "pebble" first time out and it got it. Shocked the hell out of him, even though I had warned him! It also got "cheetah" without asking me any questions about whether it runs fast, is a carnivore, or has spots -- which I thought pretty much *defined* a cheetah!

It's available for $10-15 bucks at Target, Kmart, or other discount stores or on the web here. Passionately recommended!

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