by Dan Heisman
A quintillion bytes and growing; roughly all the important data known to mankind by the year 2035, and it was just inside.
The Technic Test Team had worked together successfully on several projects. But the prospect of testing Compendium was a new career-high for Delen Barouni and Ladya Levitina. They were the only two members of the independent Team. Although still young, the Team's unique skills at constructing verbal test cases for artificially intelligent voice recognition and response computers had won them worldwide acclaim and recognition -- at least in the circles that mattered.
As they entered the Technic underground facility, the team flashed their IDs to the security guards and were directed down the hall. Their destination was the room containing the most expensive creation ever constructed by the Technic Society. This was not going to be easy; Compendium had to be thoroughly checked out before its services could be made available to the Society's membership, and the Test Team hadn't had much time to prepare since their triumph on the Mars Shuttle project.
When they arrived at the designated doorway, Ladya opened the door for Delen and they stepped inside.
It was always a shock for first-time visitors, who were expecting something grandiose. All that could be seen was a conference table and chairs.
Although it was his job to know Compendium's functional specifications, Delen was not prepared for this particular physical representation. He was more familiar with voice processors that looked like watches or clock vid-radios. With some hope, he addressed the open space. "Is this the right room? Where is Compendium?"
"IT IS. HERE." instantaneously replied a harmonically perfect baritone voice.
Now it was the easy-going Ladya's turn to look surprised. "Who said that?"
"I DID. COMPENDIUM."
She turned and looked around the room, trying to find the source of the voice. Failing, she spun back to her original orientation and said calmly, "Are you in this room?"
"IN A VERY LITERAL SENSE. MY MIKES, VID-SENSE, AND SPEAKERS ARE BUILT INTO THE WALL. MY MOLECULAR-SPIN MEMORY UNITS ARE THE FAR WALL, FACING THE TABLE."
"I see," Delen smiled at his little pun, but he also entertained thoughts of revenge on the Development team for not forewarning them about Compendium's physical representation. "And what if you need more memory?"
"THEY MAKE THE WALL THICKER."
Ladya smiled also. She raised an eyebrow and gave Delen the look that meant 'give it up -- let's just sit down and get to work.' Her partner's sometimes staccato way of questioning an AI was often disconcerting and at odds to Ladya's more relaxed approach. Delen's smile disappeared and he shuffled his papers in preparation for the task ahead.
The first twenty minutes were the standard questions that the test team gave all voice-recognition systems. Upon their completion came the first of the questions that had been prepared especially for Compendium. Ladya nodded that it was time for Delen to proceed.
The thirtyish investigator got up from the conference table and, although he had been conversing with the computer all along, now specifically faced the wall. "What is the likelihood that the Pakistani equities market will depend on Chilean imports by the year 2042?"
"How would I know that answer is correct?" He knew the answer was in the ballpark; it was necessary to know the approximate correct reply to many of his questions or else it wouldn't be a very good test.
Compendium didn't hesitate. "YOU MIGHT NOT HAVE BEFORE, BUT YOU DO NOW." Without giving the interrogator a chance to protest, the baritone continued paternally, "THE BASIC INPUTS AND REASONING ARE AS FOLLOWS..."
This line of questioning continued for a while longer.
Ladya remained seated. All of the Team's questions so far had been of the factual variety, the kind that Compendium was expected to answer and explain quickly. But after listening to Delen's prepared line of reasoning, it now occurred to her they had the opportunity to explore a wider line of questioning. Since Delen had the floor, Ladya carefully moved into his line of sight to indicate that she had something pertinent, "What kind of questions is it capable of answering?"
Delen was about to give his usual authoritative answer, when he suddenly thought better of it. "That's a good question. Let's ask him," playfully insinuating that the baritone voice didn't deserve a neuter gender.
Compendium didn't wait for them to formally address him. It was programmed to understand a human conversation and respond when humans even imply a request.
"ADDRESSING ME IN THE NEUTRAL GENDER IS ACCEPTABLE. IN RESPONSE TO ANY QUESTION YOU DIRECTLY OR INDIRECTLY POSE, I WILL CORRELATE ALL MEANINGFUL DATA IN MY DATA BASES AND PROCESS IT TO PROVIDE AN ANSWER HELPFUL TO HUMAN BEINGS. MY COMBINATION OF EXPERT-SYSTEM TECHNOLOGY, SPEECH RECOGNITION, ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, PARALLEL PROCESSING, HYPERTEXTUAL REASONING, AND MATHEMATICAL STATISTICS, ALONG WITH KNOWLEDGE OF PHILOSOPHY AND ETHICS, ENABLES ME USE THE LATEST TECHNOLOGIES TO MANKIND'S ADVANTAGE."
Ladya motioned for Delen to sit down so that she could pursue her line of reasoning. "So in other words, you know about everything?"
"NO. I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU DREAMT LAST NIGHT NOR WHAT YOU HAD FOR BREAKFAST. THE PERSONAL ELECTRONIC MEDIA ACT OF 1998 PRECLUDED MY DATA BASES FROM CONTAINING INFORMATION HUMANS MIGHT FIND PRIVATE OR EMBARRASSING. BUT I DO KNOW SEVERAL ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE MORE THAN THE INFORMATION FOUND IN THE OLD LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, MORE THAN EVEN VIA THE ENTIRE WORLDWIDE WEB -- AND THIS DATA BASE IS GROWING EVERY SECOND. I RECEIVE REAL-TIME DATA WITH REGARDS TO CURRENT EVENTS, SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS, TECHNICAL ADVANCEMENTS, AND OTHER INCOMING INFORMATION FROM EXTERNAL, ONGOING HUMAN AND COMPUTER RESEARCH, BOTH ON EARTH AND IN SPACE."
"But how do you know that your incoming data is correct? GIGO?"
"GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT." The baritone voice sounded pleased with his recognition of this particular acronym. "I DON'T. BUT IF THE DATA CAUSES CONTRADICTIONS OR HAS LOW CORRELATION WITH SIMILAR INTERNAL DATA, I SEND BACK TO THE SOURCE A QUERY REQUESTING ANY CONFIRMATIONAL INFORMATION. I MUST RECEIVE AND CHECK THIS NEW DATA BEFORE I CAN GIVE THE ORIGINAL INFORMATION HIGH CREDENCE. IT'S ALL VERY MATHEMATICALLY CORRECT."
"So what are your main uses?" Her alto voice contrasted markedly with the baritone.
"I ANSWER QUESTIONS AS BEST I CAN."
"Can you do more than that?"
"WHAT DO YOU MEAN?"
Ladya didn't immediately answer.
That pause ultimately proved important, for it allowed Delen to crystallize an idea that he had been forming during Ladya's repartee with the machine. Slowly Delen's face took on a bemused look and, more as a suggestion than a query, he stood and offered, "Why don't you ask it?"
"Ask it what?"
"Ask Compendium what you should mean. In other words, it may be able to do more than solve human-generated questions."
This time Compendium was not predisposed to answer without a clear meaning. This silence allowed Delen to continue. "Answering questions is a big deal if the question is important. For example, if I ask Compendium if there is a cure for K-type cancer, he can answer quickly and tell us that there is no current cure. But it should also be able to correlate existing data and say that the findings of Anand in India should be shown to the Olaffson Medical Research Team in Iceland because their combined research indicates specific tests that they should perform that may lead to a cure."
Ladya caught on immediately. "That's wonderful. Its ability to correlate data should accelerate mankind's technical progress to a rate much faster than we could achieve by calling on the vidphone or publishing in diskjournals."
Delen was starting to act uncharacteristically enthusiastic. He felt he was clearly on to something. "Yes, the goal of knowledge acceleration was part of the reason Compendium was able to get worldwide support. But now there is something else." For emphasis he wagged his index finger in the air in a stage-like manner.
Ladya stood up and walked over to where Delen was standing. "You're being a little melodramatic, but so far I follow you. So, what was the question I should ask Compendium?"
"What question you should ask it."
"That was a statement, not a question. You should ask Compendium what question you should ask it. You see, while its capacity for answering and serving mankind is great, it may have much greater capability."
"And that is...?"
"Generating pertinent questions to be answered. Faced with quintillions of bytes of data, no human being would be able to figure out which data is the most important to correlate. And up to now the only reason Compendium would suggest that India and Iceland should get together is as a response when you asked him a K-cancer question."
Delen paused only briefly as he saw the full consequences of his line of reasoning. "The number of permutations of correlating connections goes up exponentially faster than the linear increase in the size of the data to be correlated. For example, many scientific and practical advances were made with data that was around for decades or even centuries, but it took many years to discover a correlation even existed. There may be entire fields of knowledge that we haven't made sense of yet, as Newton did when he invented Calculus to describe his Physics theory. We may not have a cure for K-cancer or a solution for world hunger, war, greed, and human immortality, but the raw information may already exist that could direct research in specific directions that would complete the answers. Using current methods of communication, along with the human scientific method, the scientific community may take decades or even centuries to discover the existence of a key correlating fact if they are not looking for it.
"You usually don't find what you're not looking for, and no human wants to search endlessly through probably meaningless data," he continued. "So many important discoveries and inventions that are in the small, meaningful portions of the data are either found much later or maybe not at all. But Compendium could change all that! All we have to do is ask it, 'What are the right questions such that the answers would be of maximum benefit to mankind?'"
Ladya stared at Compendium, or at what little of him there was to see. "So it's like when a toddler learns to understand speech and ask questions. This toddler might ask a relatively meaningless first question, such as where his stuffed animal is. However, the parents, seeing that the child can now communicate, will, after answering the less meaningful question, also supply answers to the more meaningful unasked questions, such as telling the child to avoid drinking poison."
Ladya straightened her sleeve, almost to indicate that she was straightening out a knotty problem. "Similarly, Delen, if what you say is true, then instead of increasing human understanding ten-fold, Compendium should be able to accelerate that pace with almost no limit. It may be able to direct us to faster-than-light research or other advances we can't even dream of, all within our lifetime. And all because it doesn't have to just answer our questions."
Delen looked very pleased. "Yes. That's it exactly. Even if Compendium doesn't fully have the capabilities to correlate and come up with all the most meaningful questions, its successors will. Computers just keep getting faster and they can now self-improve their algorithms at a rate much faster than humans can. Nothing will ever be the same again -- for us or for them -- after computers start telling humans what questions to ask. It's inevitable."
Compendium heard and understood. It began to think.
Story © 2003 by Dan Heisman email@example.com
Illustration © 2003 by Matt Morrow firstname.lastname@example.org
Back to Table of Contents