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Wall Street Bankrolls New Artificial Intelligence Software

By Caryn CoatneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 3, 1998


Mathematician Ben Goertzel is producing a computer program he says will take the Internet out of its "infancy" and spearhead a new era in intelligence-based software. His plans are part science fiction and part actual possibility, say critics and champions of his project.

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If he succeeds, Dr. Goertzel will follow the path of ground-breaking inventors across the centuries whose radical ideas were first greeted with profound skepticism. Otherwise, his computer, called WebMind, will become yet another casualty in the field of artificial intelligence, replete with talented enthusiasts promising astounding feats and failing to deliver them. Artificial intelligence, or AI, is the attempt to get computers to simulate aspects of human intelligence like speech recognition, deduction, and the ability to learn from experience.

"We are on the verge of a transition equal in magnitude to the advent of intelligence, or the emergence of language," says Goertzel, who has taught mathematics, computer science, and psychology at universities in America, Australia, and New Zealand.

Although his vision can startle the AI novice, Goertzel's view that today's supercomputers will merge into a collective "global brain," fast outclassing human intelligence in many areas, is a well-known, and controversial, theory. Now, this imaginative academic is about to test his ideas in the deeply pragmatic world of Wall Street.

WebMind is based on software designed along structures of the human brain in all its aspects - a first in artificial intelligence, if it works. But what has stirred the interest of Wall Street executives who are funding Goertzel's company, Intelligenesis, is that in the competitive high-stakes environment of programmed trading, even the slightest superiority in intelligent Internet software yields high returns.

Goertzel has developed WebMind for financial markets and the general business community, with two software products scheduled for release Jan. 31. Some aspects of the technology will be unveiled to the public at the Financial Technology Expo in New York Sept. 15 to 17.

But Goertzel's vision reaches far beyond the realm of Wall Street. He wants to see a piece of WebMind installed in every device we use, even extending to outer space (one of the senior engineers at Intelligenesis used to work for NASA). In short, he is embarking on a largely unexplored path toward what he terms "the worldwide brain ... a self-organizing, emergent intelligence vastly exceeding that of any single human, encompassing humanity without denying us our freedom."

Not surprisingly, the mathematician's ideas have been categorically dismissed by experts from rival AI fields, while drawing the admiration of others working in similar areas. Mark Watson, an Arizona-based AI expert and author, says the young scientist "both inspires and sets the imagination wild."

"Scientists who can step outside of the boundaries of current methodologies are the creators of great new inventions and technologies," he adds. Goertzel "at least has a chance of success," Dr. Watson says, and even if his AI fails, it can help move the field forward.

"Of course there are skeptics," Goertzel notes. "If all that we were doing was accepted by everyone, then many larger and wealthier companies would be doing it." In principle, physical science shows that a brain can be simulated by a computer to any desired degree of detail, he says. And he believes 20 to 100 gigabytes of a computer's random access memory is sufficient to allow him to do this. Random access is the computer's ability to find and directly go to a particular storage location, the same way a person immediately finds a phone number without searching through the entire telephone book first.