Silicon Snake Oil

Second Thoughts on the Information Highway

by Clifford Stoll

Doubleday, 1995

A division of Bantam, Doubleday, Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

"On September 15, 1842, the British Astronomer Royal, Sir George Biddell Airy, K.C.B., M.A., LL.D., D.C.L., F.R.S., F.R.A.S., responded to a query from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The government was considering funding an invention of one Charles Babbage. Should Parliament support the construction of the analytical engine--the first mechanical calculator and predecessor to digital computers? What would be the value of such a device? The learned astronomer's one-word reply: 'Worthless."


Can't make up your mind about new music? '"Ringo" [i.e. HOMR Now: Firefly] is a personalized music-recommendation sytstem,' Professor Pattie Maes of MIT's Media Laboratory writes in the July 1994 'Communications of the ACM.'

Of all the software agents she's considered, 'This one might have the best potential to become the next "killer application" '. Along with other entertainment-selection agents, it will help you select movies, books, and television shows, by correlating your tastes with other intelligent agents.

Now, I don't need a computer program to tell me what books or music I'll like. Friends, reviews, and browsing work just fine, thank you.

Intelligent agents are a fantasy sprouted in the tomorrowland of MIT's medial laboratory. They're believable enough to generate heavy grants for big-name researchers. But I wonder of Professor Airy's prediction may now be coming true, a century and a half late."

(pp. 94-95)

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Copyright © Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1995. All rights reserved.
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Updated on April 15, 1996