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20 Questions

The Net Knows

By Marrit Ingman, April 4, 2003, Screens

What's neither animal nor vegetable, bigger than a breadbox (probably), and a bigger waste of precious time than dancing hamsters? Answer: The 20 Questions game at www.20q.net. An artificial-intelligence program tries to figure out what's on your mind, using standard questions ("Do you use it at work?" or "If you drop it, does it break?") to identify an object. The more you play it, the more it ostensibly "learns." Indeed, the geeks have already swept through: The AI knows about spinchters, mullets, the "human head," "everything," barley, ospreys, and, of course, "a butt." I skewed my inquiries to more feminine matters. The game guessed "tampon" in 18 tries but puzzled over "breast pump" ("Does it make music?") and "nasal aspirator" ("Is it a noose?"). The server load is heavy at times, and the site's creator asks for (optional) statistical information about the users, but the game is otherwise easy to jump into and play. Anonymous users play a "G-rated" version of the game; register to teach the thing about "dildos," "hooters," and "Ron Jeremy."

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