`Artificial Intelligence' Solves a Mystery

Article excerpt

ARCHAEOLOGY, artificial intelligence, and cryptography have little to do with one another, and is that at once both the charm and the problem with Alexander Tzonis's novel "Hermes and the Golden Thinking Machine."

Hermes Steganos is a young professor of archaeology at Harvard University, by all accounts a genius who has succeeded in applying the science of artificial intelligence (AI) and his knack for breaking codes to the decryption of ancient texts.

The Golden Thinking Machine is a priceless artifact, stolen by Hermes's uncle - also an archaeologist - from a recent dig. Hermes sees the machine briefly at the start of his year-long sabbatical in Athens. Hours later Hermes's uncle is murdered and the Golden Thinking Machine stolen. Hermes is the prime suspect. In order to prove his innocence, he must find the killer.

The plot quickly unfolds in this charmingly academic novel about the nature of thought and the history of machine intelligence. The uncle's circle of friends includes archaeologists, spies, and mystics, all of them erudite, nearly all of them with a secret desire to study - what else? - artificial intelligence.

As Hermes seeks them out, for information or interrogation or help, the subject of the discussion almost invariably turns to search strategies, logical decision trees, problem-solving programs, and reasoning by analogy. As his contacts become more exotic, Hermes becomes more confused.

Meanwhile, back in his apartment, Hermes's beautiful and equally brilliant cousin Nina, herself a student at a nearby university, has a plan.

Using the experimental AI laptop computer that Hermes has brought with him from the United States, Nina is writing an AI "expert system" that will solve the crime. …