Artificial intelligence has made great strides in recent years, but I have never felt like I was living in the future so much as I did today at work. My co-worker "Pepe" received a handheld electronic game called "20Q", which plays a near-perfect game of Twenty Questions. The future is now, and 20Q is leading the way.
It's not just that the 20Q is bright, and obviously quite good at Twenty Questions. Relying solely on on yes/no/maybe responses and a pre-loaded set of questions, 20Q guessed such challenging objects as "volcano" and "post-it notes". It's more that the 20Q takes time to talk electronic trash, warning you of its imminent victory in between questions like "Is it bigger than a loaf of bread?" and "Is it heavier than a duck?" Somehow, a taunt like, "I am onto your game...You can't fool me" is all the more devastating when it shows up one line at a time, with a dramatic pause while the wee processors try to catch up. Bizarrely, the 20Q will occasionally ask, "Is it heavier than a pound of butter?", which sounds like a riddle until you realize that one only has to do with feathers and gold and antiquated British measurement systems.
The 20Q is not by any means perfect. There is some confusion when words have double meanings. For example, an affirmative answer to the question, "Does it roll?" led to a guess of "Is it a beer can?", though the mystery object was actually a condom. We had posited that the 20Q might have some sort of adult content filter, until its final guess of "lubricant", which came remarkably close to the right answer.
20Q was also defeated by "Rolodex", though it guessed both "notepad" and "index card". This was likely due to the fear of trademark infringement, in the same way that news organizations are scolded to never use "TiVo" as a noun or verb - only an adjective. I can imagine the 20Q researchers revising their programming codes with heavy hearts, after receiving a cease-and-desist order from Rolodex's legal department.
The final test of 20Q: Could it identify the mystery object if it were the 20Q itself? "Pepe" argues that one of the most important parts of intelligence is self-awareness. Should the 20Q successfully identify itself, I would be much more inclined to accept it as sentient, albeit handheld being. And at that point, what is our next move? Start teaching the 20Q basic accounting skills and household tasks? Buy another 20Q and see if the two can reproduce? Destroy the 20Q, before it can reproduce and take over the planet? Perhaps the 20Q itself could enlighten us. Is the 20Q's potential danger to human civilization bigger than a loaf of bread? Is it heavier than a pound of butter?