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Stories: Artificial Stupidity
You can have interesting philosophical debates about what constitutes artificial intelligence or whether it even exists but no one doubts the existence of artificial stupidity.

Manly Men Wanted
When I worked at GTE, there was a project for outside plant maintenance workers. In the current system, the field engineer would call an engineer inside the central office. The inside engineer would perform some tests on the network and give the results to the field engineer. They might then perform some more tests.

Unfortunately this took up the inside engineer's time. The two also often got chatty, taking up even more time.

In the new system, the field engineer would phone an automated response system and use a telephone keypad to enter instructions. The system would automatically perform tests and a recorded voice would read responses. No more wasted time for the inside engineer and no more long chats.

After a few weeks, it because clear that the field engineers weren't using the new system. A little digging uncovered the reason. The new voice response system used a pleasant female voice. If it worked for Star Trek, it should work for GTE, right? At that time, however, 90-some percent of engineers were men (it's probably still like that) and the field engineers didn't trust the woman's voice so they called the office engineer anyway.

So began phase two. GTE recorded a man's voice for the system and tried again. The field engineers still didn't use the system. It turned out that the man's voice sounded too wimpy so the field engineers didn't trust it either. GTE recorded a more manly man's voice for the system and the field engineers finally accepted it.

Your Tax Dollars At Work
When I worked at GTE Laboratories, we used a lot of DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) computers. One day I was talking with Cindy, our DEC repair technician, while she fixed something or other. It was covered under warranty so it was free.

She said earlier in the week she had spent a day at GTE's Government Systems division. They had a hard disk failure so she was swapping the disk out. The old disk, however, contain classified data so they paid her to spend most of the day field stripping the disk to remove the platters so they could physically destroy them. Although the disk was covered under warranty, it cost them more than $8,000.

Shocking Language
Ariel Canievsky shares this story:

A few days ago, I was gonna scan a german magazine. I open the application of my Agfa Scanner (the SnapScan Touch), and appeared a massagebox sayin': "The language is not compatible with the system. Reinstall the application."

I installed it again, and this message was still appearin', until I changed the language at the 3rd re-installation. I set German. Could u believe that then it worked perfectly?! Does the language mean anything, when I just wanted to scan images, not text?

Dropping the Ball
Legend has it that an MIT AI lab had trained a robot arm to catch a ball. You threw a ball near it. Its cameras picked the ball out of the other objects in the room and tracked it. The computer calculated the ball's trajectory, and then moved the robot arm to catch it. If you've ever worked with robot arms, you know that this is an impressive feat.

The robot's software was written in Lisp, one of the most popular languages for writing artificial intelligence applications. Lisp uses a garbage collection system for memory allocation. When memory resources are running low, the system scans through memory looking for unused pieces. It then garbage collects them and makes them available for reuse.

In one demonstration, the cameras picked out the ball, tracked it across the room, and calculated the ball's trajectory. Then the application ran low on memory and stopped for garbage collection. When garbage collection was finished a few seconds later, the ball had hit the floor and rolled away.

[Now when Microsoft tells us how wonderful it is that Visual Studio.NET uses garbage collection instead of reference counting as Visual Basic 6 does, I shudder. Garbage collection may be fine for Web applications that start, allocate a bunch of small chunks of memory, and then shut down, but I can't think of any real advantages for desktop systems.]

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