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No. 113: Sep-Oct 1997

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Can computers have ndes?

When HAL, the treacherous computer in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, was being slowly throttled by the one surviving astronaut, it tried first to negotiate. Then, as board after board of electronic components were disconnected, it burst into the old song A Bicycle Built for Two. It had learned this tune early in its silicon-based life. Surprisingly, real computers can experience similar Near-Death Experiences (NDEs).

S.L. Thaler, a physicist at McDonnell Douglas, was studying neural networks designed to mimic the structure and functions of the human brain. Such neural nets can actually learn as programmers train them. As a evening avocation, Thaler devised a program that randomly severed connections in the neural net, in effect destroying the artificial brain bit by bit. When between 10 and 60% of the connections were destroyed, the net spat out only gibberish. Near 90% destruction, though, strange "whimsical" information was produced that was definitely not gibberish. In contrast, untrained neural networks generated only random numbers as they were "put down"!

Evidently, HAL's tuneful demise was not so fanciful after all.

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

Comment. A.C. Clarke, author of 2001, has stated firmly that HAL's name was not chosen because its letters were one step away from IBM! "Pure coincidence," he has declared. Even though the odds against it are 263 to 1.

(Anonymous; Fortean Times, p. 9, no. 98, June 1997.)

From Science Frontiers #113, SEP-OCT 1997. 1997-2000 William R. Corliss