Artificial intelligence, genuine stupidity

Dig this new site: “Dumb Warnings.” It collects the finest in incredibly stupid labels put on products, including such gems as:

Swedish Chainsaw
Do not attempt to stop chain with your hands or genitals.

Unknown Blow Dryer
Warning: Do not use while sleeping.

Blockbuster Rental DVD
Be kind - rewind.

Child-Sized Superman Costume
Wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly.

Unknown Air Conditioner
Caution: Avoid dropping air conditioners out of windows.

Harry Potter Toy Broom
This broom does not actually fly.

What does this have to do with artificial intelligence, you ask? Well, interestingly, back in 2001 I visited the headquarters of Cyc, the “common sense” artificial intelligence company. They’re trying to write up all the rules of everyday common-sense knowledge — the stuff that humans effortlessly know, but that computers never do. Computer systems typically screw up because they encounter a basic fact of life that they weren’t told of beforehand. For example, back in the 1980s, a credit-card-approval system actually gave a credit card to a 13-year-old who claimed he had “8 years of work experience”. The problem? The computer didn’t know the common-sense fact that 13-year-old kids (in North America, anyway) can’t have 8 years of work experience. It’s a piece of common sense — a bit of knowledge about the world so patently obvious that the programmers forgot to program it into the computer system.

Which is precisely the problem with common-sense knowledge: It’s invisible. It’s the things we never actually bother to say, because everyone knows them. Doug Lenat, the founder of Cyc, has spent the last 17 years trying to codify all this knowledge, writing it out rule by rule — stuff like “everyone has a mother,” “water is wet”, or “when people die, they stay dead.” Obvious stuff, right? But it’s stuff computers don’t know.

Which brings me back to those lovely warning labels noted above. When I was visiting Cyc, Lenat showed me a bunch of warnings like that. His goal, he said, is to make it so that Cyc can actually understand what’s funny about them. Humans recognize that one ought not to try stopping a chain saw with our “hands or genitals”, because we’ll get them hacked off. For Cyc to be able to see the irony, it’ll have to know such basic facts as “chain saws can chop through soft things while they’re running,” “hands and genitals are soft,” and “it is bad to lose one’s hands or genitals.”

Of course, the real question is — if this stuff is so obvious and common-sensical, why the hell did these corporations have to make labels clarifying it? Probably because of litigation, I’d say. Companies are so afraid of getting sued that they have to specify every single contingency that governs their products, no matter how absurd. Hilariously, this turns the lowly corporate label-crafting copywriter into an ontological philosopher on par with the dudes crafting Cyc. The world is so bloody strange.

(Update: check out the comment by Aaron, with a link to a pile of other, parody warning labels!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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