Smart Machines `Learn' New Technologies Will Continue to Alter the Business Landscape. Here Are Four Examples. Series: GLOBAL FRONTIERS. Part 1 of a 4-Part Series. Fifth of Nine Articles Appearing Today
Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
IMAGINE a computer that can think.
It would learn by trial and error. As it gained experience with something, it would draw increasingly sophisticated conclusions. Computer scientists are turning that science-fiction idea into actual machines.
They're called neural networks. University researchers and computer companies are finding lots of ways to use them. For example:
- Speech recognition. At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., researchers play hundreds of hours of tapes for a neural network. The machine listens to, say, 300 people saying "ah" until it learns to recognize the sound. Researchers hope that after learning these phonemes - the simplest parts of speech - the computer will know who is speaking, what language is being used, and what is being said. A simple phoneme like "ah" might take half an hour for the neural network to learn. More complex ones take up to two weeks.
- Market predictions. According to Pittsburgh-based NeuralWare, which supplies systems that forecast financial market changes, one Texas customer used them to predict stock-index futures correctly 85 percent of the time. A major Japanese bank uses several neural networks to make market forecasts with 70 percent accuracy, the company says.
- Handwriting recognition. The United States Post Office is funding research that would allow neural networks to read hand-written ZIP codes and, thus, speed up delivery.
NeuralWare's systems do everything from targeting junk mail to helping oil corporations locate drilling rigs. …