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No. 88: Jul-Aug 1993

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Computers can have near-death experiences!

When HAL, the treacherous computer of 2001: A Space Odyssey, was being slowly disconnected, it began singing "A Bicycle Built for Two." In other words, the cutting of the computer's interconnections did not result in gibberish, rather memories that were previously stored flashed through its data processors. Something similar seems to happen with nonfictional computers.

When a type of computer program termed an "artificial neural network" is "killed" by cutting links between its units, it in effect approaches a state which "might" be something like biological "death." S.L. Thaler, a physicist at McDonnell Douglas, has been systematically chopping up artificial neural networks. He has found that when between 10% and 60% of the network connections have been severed, the program generates primarily nonsense. But, as the 90% (near-death!) level is approached, the network's outout is composed more and more of previously learned information, like HAL's learned song! Also, when untrained artificial neural networks were slowly killed, they responded only with nonsense.

(Yam, Philip; "'Daisy, Daisy'," Scientific American, 268:32, May 1993.)

From Science Frontiers #88, JUL-AUG 1993. 1993-2000 William R. Corliss