Science & Technology: A British Programmer Claims to Have Invented a True Artificial Intelligence. the Net Isn't So Sure. ; We Are All Big Brother. the Only Secrets That Remain Are Those That Aren't on the Web
Charles Arthur On Technology, The Independent (London, England)
WHEN GOOGLE announced its prospective e-mail service a couple of weeks ago (unwisely using the name "Gmail" without having trademarked it), a number of commentators expressed fears about the privacy aspects of having a big company scanning your e-mail for key words against which it could sell ads.
To be honest, I don't understand the concern. For one thing, it's obvious when you sign up that your e-mails are going to be scanned. For another, it's being scanned by a machine, not a human. (Be honest - you didn't think Google had hired every spare programmer to hack out the answers to your personal web query, did you?)
To trump it all, the reality is that wherever you go on the web today, and wherever you've been in the past, if you've made any sort of comment, or even just been commented on in a way that can be identified by others, you'll have been sucked into Google's huge archive of what goes on around the internet. What's more, other people will be able to find out what you've done.
This was illustrated with some force a few weeks ago when a story appeared in New Scientist magazine. It reported that a British programmer, Jim Wightman, had come up with a revolutionary artificial intelligence program that he said would create "bots" that could strike up conversations in chatrooms and spot would-be paedophiles, who would then be reported back to him, who could pass the details on to the police.
The story was widely picked up by other news outlets. (The Independent did not run it.) But within hours of its appearance, folk around the net began stroking their chins and saying "Just a minute..."
Looking at the transcript of a "conversation" in New Scientist, allegedly between one of the "bots" and a chatroom user, many people began to question how a previously unknown programmer could have created what looked to be the biggest leap in artificial intelligence in many decades.
They then began hitting Google for more about the unknown Wightman. He didn't stay unknown for long. The site he had set up to publicise his "bots" provided raw material (an e-mail address, plus his work address via the site's registration details) that could be used to scour Usenet, the thousands of newsgroups, for more details about his past postings. (Google has the complete archive of Usenet postings, going back to the internet's year zero. If you don't want your postings to appear there, you have to put "X-No-Archive" in the headers of your news postings.)
They trawled Google for any hints of things he might have done in the past. This turned up the occasional angry exchange in various newsgroups; a few annoyed exchanges in specialist discussion boards; and a host of schemes that Wightman had been involved with at one time or another.
It also turned up examples of claims he'd made that hadn't been supported by later evidence. Like it or not, Wightman's footprints - or perhaps that should be fingerprints - were all over the web and Usenet. …