T T he concept of the digital pet goes back a ways. Veterans of the 1990s dot-com boom might remember the bizarre toy fad known as Tamagotchi, in which kids were encouraged to care for surprisingly needy little digital devices made of cheap plastic. It was just like having a real pet, minus all the fun.
Electrical engineer Janelle Shane has found a 21st-century variation on the theme by spending her spare time training baby neural networks. Sometimes referred to as machine learning systems, neural nets are highly evolved computer programs modeled on the human brain and nervous system. They can learn on their own and think laterally in a way that traditional programs can't.
In that sense, neural nets are a kind of artificial intelligence, although that phrase is famously slippery these days. (If you're in no rush and plan to live forever, ask two computer scientists to debate the term.) The bottom line is that neural networks, given enough input data, can teach themselves to think up all kinds of things: heavy metal band profiles, for instance.
Stormgarden, black metal from Germany; Inhuman Sand, melodic death metal from Russia; and Black Clonic Sky, black metal from Greece were among the profiles generated by Shane's neural network after the system was fed a data set of 100,000 band names, subgenres, and countries of origin.
Shane's neural net outputted the new band names by applying pattern recognition algorithms to the raw chunk of input data. In a very real sense, the AI system simply thought up the new names, all by itself.
“With a neural net, you set up some very basic rules, then you give it the data and let it figure out the patterns in that data and how to process them,” Shane said. “Its really just a framework where the computer figures out its own rules. The computer program is writing itself, in a sense.”