Chatting with your friends and family members through text messages is fun. How about hopping on a time machine to chat with a World War I soldier?
The soldier is “Archie Barwick,” an Australian who died in 1966 but is still virtually alive in text messages through the magic of a “chatbot” created by News Corps Australia. In real life, Barwick kept a 400,000-word diary, which is the base for his conversation with you.
Here’s a sample: “We had a fine tea just before we left the firing line. The cooks brought up as much steak & bacon as you could eat & to spare, plus tea, boiled potatoes & onions mashed together.
“We marched about three miles and bivouacked out on an open piece of ground for the night. We just simply threw ourselves down and slept as we were. To many of us it was the first time we had closed our eyes for six nights so you can imagine how we looked.”
Sometimes the question you asked can’t be answered, but a similar one can be. We typed: “Can you see the enemy?” Up popped an alternative suggestion: “Thoughts on Germans?” Archie said: “They’re a miserable, ragged-looking lot, with a few fine men here and there. I reckon a man is quite justified in shooting the dogs on sight.”
To chat with Archie, go to Messenger.com on your computer or install the Facebook Messenger app on your smart phone. You can use Messenger for video chats, but not with Archie. If you don’t have a Facebook account it will ask you to create one. They’re free. Type “Archie Barwick.” Then click “Get Started.” Archie will write you a couple times a day.
This brings up the problem of whether a conversation with a computer is real or not. The “Turing test” was proposed 66 years ago by British mathematician and code breaker Alan Turing. Basically, it came down to the question of whether or not a human could tell they were talking with a computer.
In the early days of Apple and Atari computers (1980-82), programmers played around with developing such artificial response routines in an attempt to simulate an actual person in the machine. One of the earliest programs was an artificial psychiatrist with canned questions and answers that were very close to a real therapy session. It was meant to be amusing but quite a few people took it seriously and began to talk about their personal problems, some found it easier to talk to a machine. Around the same time, programs were developed to automatically write prose and a kind of free-form poetry. Bob remembers one that started out with the striking line: “The policeman’s beard is half constructed.” Hard to top that.
The upshot of all this is that the advance of artificial intelligence moves apace and will someday be fully upon us. People like Elon Musk, developer of the Tesla electric car, have recently warned that when that day comes, we may not be pleased.
Games We Used to Play
“Monkey Island” is a video adventure game from 1990 and still Joy’s favorite. (Too difficult for Bob). Now “Tick’s Tales: Up All Knight” is a retro game in the manner of that earlier LucasFilm classic.
When neighborhood troublemaker Tick tries to impress the girl of his dreams by drawing a sword from a stone, he draws the ire of the evil goblin “Bloodclot.” The game has lots of puzzles and the kind of graphics you’ll remember from the old days. We mean if you were around in the old days. (We were recently talking to a twenty-something girl who referred to those days as “pre-me.”) It’s available for PC, Mac and Linux for $8 from Store.Postudios.com, Steam and the Humble Bundle Store.
The July issue of Scientific American magazine, by the way, had a headline article on the value of playing computer games for brain development. We made that same argument in this column more than 30 years ago. It was obvious then and should be obvious now, that when you observe children playing video games you notice that they become better at it by developing a sense of pattern recognition. They are often able to predict what will happen next. People who worry about too much attention being paid to video games are missing an important point: it requires an active brain.
The Numbers Report
About half of all U.S. households get video from “video on demand” services, such as Netflix or Hulu, according to a recent Nielsen report. The average person watches videos 99 minutes per day on their phone, up from 62 minutes last year. They also walk into lamp posts more often.
Turn Down the Volume
A reader wrote to say that his listening to online radio is nearly spoiled by loud commercials. He asked if we knew a way to force Windows to play everything at the same volume. Aha! We do.
There’s a little icon of a speaker in the lower right of your Windows computer screen. Click it with your right mouse button. Then click “playback devices” with the left mouse button. From here, click on your speaker and click “properties.” Move over to the “Enhancements” tab and click. In the long list of enhancements, you’ll find one that says “Volume equalization.” That’s the one. Check it.
Many children browsing the web have stumbled onto pornography sites. To protect the youngsters in your household, you can tweak the settings in Google or Bing.com.
Go to Google.com/familysafety or Bing.com/account to select the level of safety you wish. “Strict” on Bing.com means that a search on a term such as “bare bunnies” produces nothing worse than an old article about Playboy bunnies, without any incriminating pictures.
- “10 Sketching Tips for Beginners.” Google that phrase to find some useful information on how to draw hair, add textures, mirror an image or make a silhouette. (People will sometimes say “I just can’t draw,” but in fact it can be learned.)
- “10 More Enigmas That Defy Explanation.” Search on that phrase to find some amazing stories. A 19-year-old woman in Minnesota was found frozen stiff outside her home. Doctors thought they would have to amputate both legs if they could even possibly revive her; they also expected severe brain damage. Instead, she woke up on her own and was fine, the ice melting away. She didn’t lose a single finger. (She’s thinking of moving to Florida, however.)