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How Electronic "20 Questions" Games Work

It was about four years ago when I first saw a 20Q ball. The tiny handheld device scrolled text across its meager one-line screen, inviting me to challenge it in a game of 20 Questions. I immediately thought of an object I figured it wouldn't guess ("iPod") and began to play the game. After a series of slightly odd questions -- including "Does it bring joy to people?" -- the little ball gave its guess: "MP3 player." Wow. It was right.

So how does this 20Q device work? The short answer is "artificial intelligence." The long answer involves lots of practice. In 1988, Canadian inventor Robin Burgener programmed a neural network (a specialized form of computer program) capable of playing 20 Questions, but without a library of knowledge about common objects. He proceeded to teach it twenty questions about the object "cat," then handed the program (on floppy disk) to friends and encouraged them to play, recording their play sessions as it went. For 20Q, playing equals learning, as it develops "synaptic connections" whenever it receives answers to questions. It's able to reinforce connections by playing games over and over with different people, gradually learning which answers are correct and which aren't. (Thus it's difficult to "poison" the system by purposely giving it wrong answers.) The program can then use these connections to pose clarifying questions, eventually arriving at an answer.

By 1995, Burgener had a good body of connections in his neural network. He put a version of the 20Q program on the web and encouraged web visitors to play with it (thus training it in the process). After the online version of 20Q had played one million games (amassing 10 million synaptic connections in the process), Burgener boiled down the 20Q system into a simplified 20Q-on-a-chip version. The hardware version was incapable of learning, but contained information about the 2,000 most popular objects chosen by users of the online program. As such, it embodied a shocking "intelligence" that toy makers later put into the 20Q balls, now available at toy stores everywhere for under $15. (Specialized versions are also available, including a Harry Potter unit, and later versions of the handheld game have more information built-in.)

Today (or at least as of late 2006, the last time its online FAQ seems to have been updated), the online version of 20Q guesses correctly about 80% of the time, and if you allow it 25 questions, it claims a 98% success rate. With over 60 million games played online, the neural net continues to learn -- and this learning can be translated into future versions of the 20Q handheld games. In an interview with Kevin Kelly, Burgener said, "It is learning, but it is not increasing its success rate. What happens is that it is learning to play more kinds of people, people who don't speak English easily, or who have never played 20 questions, or who come from different cultures, and to understand more difficult kinds of things."

You can play 20Q Online for free, or pick up a handheld version at any reputable toy or game store. You can read a bit more about the game at Wikipedia or check out more on neural networks for a deeper understanding.

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Animals
Watch an Antarctic Minke Whale Feed in a First-of-Its-Kind Video
WWF
WWF

New research from the World Wildlife Fund is giving us a rare glimpse into the world of the mysterious minke whale. The WWF worked with Australian Antarctic researchers to tag minke whales with cameras for the first time, watching where and how the animals feed.

The camera attaches to the whale's body with suction cups. In the case of the video below, the camera accidentally slid down the side of the minke whale's body, providing an unexpected look at the way its throat moves as it feeds.

Minke whales are one of the smallest baleen whales, but they're still pretty substantial animals, growing 30 to 35 feet long and weighing up to 20,000 pounds. Unlike other baleen whales, though, they're small enough to maneuver in tight spaces like within sea ice, a helpful adaptation for living in Antarctic waters. They feed by lunging through the sea, gulping huge amounts of water along with krill and small fish, and then filtering the mix through their baleen.

The WWF video shows just how quickly the minke can process this treat-laden water. The whale could lunge, process, and lunge again every 10 seconds. "He was like a Pac-Man continuously feeding," Ari Friedlaender, the lead scientist on the project, described in a press statement.

The video research, conducted under the International Whaling Commission's Southern Ocean Research Partnership, is part of WWF's efforts to protect critical feeding areas for whales in the region.

If that's not enough whale for you, you can also watch the full 13-minute research video below:

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technology
AI Could Help Scientists Detect Earthquakes More Effectively
iStock
iStock

Thanks in part to the rise of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, earthquakes are becoming more frequent in the U.S. Even though it doesn't fall on a fault line, Oklahoma, where gas and oil drilling activity doubled between 2010 and 2013, is now a major earthquake hot spot. As our landscape shifts (literally), our earthquake-detecting technology must evolve to keep up with it. Now, a team of researchers is changing the game with a new system that uses AI to identify seismic activity, Futurism reports.

The team, led by deep learning researcher Thibaut Perol, published the study detailing their new neural network in the journal Science Advances. Dubbed ConvNetQuake, it uses an algorithm to analyze the measurements of ground movements, a.k.a. seismograms, and determines which are small earthquakes and which are just noise. Seismic noise describes the vibrations that are almost constantly running through the ground, either due to wind, traffic, or other activity at surface level. It's sometimes hard to tell the difference between noise and legitimate quakes, which is why most detection methods focus on medium and large earthquakes instead of smaller ones.

But better understanding natural and manmade earthquakes means studying them at every level. With ConvNetQuake, that could soon become a reality. After testing the system in Oklahoma, the team reports it detected 17 times more earthquakes than what was recorded by the Oklahoma Geological Survey earthquake catalog.

That level of performance is more than just good news for seismologists studying quakes caused by humans. The technology could be built into current earthquake detection methods set up to alert the public to dangerous disasters. California alone is home to 400 seismic stations waiting for "The Big One." On a smaller scale, there's an app that uses a smartphone's accelerometers to detect tremors and alert the user directly. If earthquake detection methods could sense big earthquakes right as they were beginning using AI, that could afford people more potentially life-saving moments to prepare.

[h/t Futurism]

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