The June issue of Wired Magazine is now online – ever since their new editor came in, Wired stopped their practice of putting issues on the web a month late. This was probably a good idea – the magazine is so cheap in America ($10 for a year’s subscription) that you might as well subscribe, and elsewhere it’s so hideously overpriced (almost £4 per issue in the UK, at least five times than in America) that no-one wants to buy it.


The BBC has started up a new AI-like game! Quite a surprise, I’ll have to admit. It’s called ‘Spooks’ and you can find the entry page here.

Positive points: It’s done by the BBC, who have a good track record of Internet stuff. They openly acknowledge a debt to Microsoft’s AI game. It’s tied to a TV programme, which as I’ve always thought, could result in much neat-o happenings (you should expect an article about that very thing in the near future).

Negative points: It looks quite cheesy. They say it takes place in ‘real time’ which could also mean ‘we are going to put artificial blocks in front of your progress.’ They expect 200,000 players – now, they might get that many but to be frank I’ve always thought it was better to underplay things rather than overplay them.

More negative points: You have to sign up to do certain stuff. I hate having to sign up to things. As yet, I haven’t found any other sites apart from the thameshouse.net. This is, to put it lightly, really poor since it means that the entire game will take place within one website and with one site design. Reeks of laziness. Makes it too easy for players – I mean, it even tells you when certain pages have been updated? They might as well just give you the answers straight off!

Okay, so this post is turning out to be longer and more negative than I expected. Even so, the burden of proof rests squarely on the BBC to show that they can make a game as compelling as the AI one. I think their main problem is a typical English one: they’re being too meek and conservative. Don’t get me wrong, I live in England and it’s a great place, but when the designer of the game says:

“There will be about three tasks a week and we will send out a resume for anyone who can’t keep up or who has gone wrong. We didn’t want to make it too hard or take over people’s lives.”

that makes me wonder what the hell the point of it is. Big Brother was a big phenomenon because it took over people’s lives! People want their lives to be taken over, as long as it’s for something fun. I’ll be frank here – massively multiplayer online entertainment of the AI ilk will never attract the soap watchers, or even the majority of the Big Brother watchers, at least not any time soon. It will attract the experienced Internet users of the UK, and these guys can recognise good content and have time to burn. MMOE cannot do things by half measures. I think that the BBC has a great opportunity to prove itself here as being on the forefront of online entertainment, and by the looks of things they’ve drawn a wrong set of conclusions from the (massively successful) AI game. More on this later.


I got an email today from my psychology supervisor, Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen (the autistics guy) who said that unfortunately he wouldn’t be able to give us an extra supervision for the exams since he’s flying out to Kosovo to help with their new child psychiatry service. I think that is impossibly neat.

GM babies

To Enhance or Not To Enhance – I’m not sure why this guy talks about artificial chromosomes, I can think of several major reasons why this would is far from the best way of genetically altering embryos. Modification of the existing embryonic DNA would work better and in a more predictable manner.

24 (part 2)

The usual assortment of rogues turned up to today’s episode of 24 and firmly established their territorial right to the TV.

“24?” asked two guys walking in, hopefully.
“Yup,” we replied.

They looked downcast, and said, “Not To Die For?

We responded in the negative. “It’s a good movie, but not today,” shaking our heads sadly as we watched them, and their bottle of lemonade, disappear.

Talk then went on to plans for formation of a 24 college society (‘not enough funds’ and ‘could be seen as frivolous’ were the main problems) and I vowed to bring popcorn to next week’s episode.

Garden path

There’s an interesting phenomenon in language comprehension called the ‘garden path effect’. Proposed by Frazier and Fodor (1979), it basically meant that when you are reading or hearing a sentence, you split it up into chunks (you parse it), and due to something called ‘late closure’ you keep on adding as many words as possible to the current chunk you’re working on. This works quite well to illustrate the way in which we comprehend language.

Take a look at these examples:

1. (Since Jay always jogs a mile) he is very fit.
2. (Since Jay always jogs a mile) seems like a short distance.
3. (Since Jay always jogs) a mile seems like a short distance.

In (1), keeping the chunk as long as possible works quite nicely. In (2), it fails miserably since if you use the chunk illustrated there, the sentence doesn’t make any sense. Instead, you’d have to backtrack and reposition your chunk as shown in (3). Now, this all sounds a bit woolly until you realise that there’s plenty of evidence for this from latency measurements and eye movement studies. The latter in particular are neat – you can see people reading a sentence, come to a screeching halt as the garden path model fails them and then regress to the nearest noun.

There’s another possible method of parsing sentences, and that’s by looking at its semantics – its meaning – and parsing the sentence in a way that makes the most sense.

1. (The defendent examined) by the lawyer turned out to be unreliable.
2. (The evidence examined) by the lawyer turned out to be unreliable.

In (1), there are two possible places to position the first chunk. The defendent could be doing the examining (wrong, as shown above) or the defendent could be the one being examined (right, not shown). In (2), there’s only one meaning – since evidence can’t do any examining (it’s not alive, is it?), it must be being examined. So according to semantic parsing, you’d expect that people would have fewer problems reading (2) than (1). And that’s true, according to eye fixation studies. By the way, in both the sentences above, the parsing has been done ‘wrong’ – it has been done according to the garden path model with late closure.

As usual in these things, the two models (semantic and garden path) have been put together in a new ‘connectionist’ approach which takes the best bits from both. But that’s not what I’m interested in. What I’m interested in are the implications of altering the meanings of a word. Imagine if you had this sentence:

The AI examined by the lawyer turned out to be unreliable.

Now, imagine we go back far enough such that it is inconceivable that AIs are intelligent enough to do any examining. This would mean that there is only one way to parse the first chunk, as the AI is being examined. But go forward x decades to when it is conceivable that AIs could be examining something – you’ve just created an alternative parsing structure for the sentence. How does the brain cope with this? Is there a gradual alteration of the semantic structure and do the effects of this slowly filter down the language systems, or is the change sudden?.

(I just realised that I may have misunderstood the exact mechanisms of parsing and where to put the brackets, but the general concepts still hold. I think I’m right, anyway…)

Sid Meier

Sid Meier (creator of the Civilization games) had this to say about massively multiplayer games: “It’s a new, exciting, but at the same time repelling world. I don’t know. Really.” Absolutely.