Thursday June 24, 2004
Â· You may remember Jim Wightman. He claimed to have written a piece of chat software that could pass itself off as a real child in a chatroom, and identify internet paedophiles by behaviour. To say this was thought highly dubious is an understatement – the software, if it existed, would have been 10 years ahead of everything written by huge teams of AI academics; he offered to let us see the software working, and then refused; and the NSPCC and Barnardo’s distanced themselves from his ideas about monitoring children’s activities himself with no child protection background. Embarrassingly, New Scientist accepted his claims uncritically, and the BBC and others followed suit, although New Scientist did, after two pieces here, remove their glowing article about him from their website.
Â· Now they’re back with Wightman. Here’s what happened. New Scientist visited Jim at home with two AI academics to chat with the program. In previous “test conversations”, over the web, without experimenters being able to see that the computer was not connected to any others, the program gave highly sophisticated answers after a suspiciously long delay (almost as if someone was typing them). This time it instantly gave rubbish computer-generated responses, nothing like those in the previous transcripts. In fact, it gave the very same answers that Alice, an old and not very sophisticated AI program, written by somebody else, not Wightman, gave in subsequent tests. Then Wightman offered to show them the code … but suddenly, and inexplicably, the power to Jim’s whole house went off. The test was over. Imagine.
Â· Did New Scientist finally give it up? No. “New Scientist can still provide no definitive proof of Wightman’s claims, but looks forward to a return visit when the complete ChatNannies software is available for testing.” Please. Did they ask Wightman about his unlikely claim to have a seven-figure offer from an American corporation which had “full independent testing performed on the AI and are confident of its validity and effecacy[sic]”? He was apparently quite capable of giving them a proper demonstration. Did they quiz Wightman on his previous false claims about writing software, or any of the other issues Bad Science raised? No. To those of us brought up loving the great institution that is New Scientist it is, as Tibor Fischer said, a bit like bouncing out of the classroom at breaktime, only to catch your favourite uncle masturbating in the school playground.