By John Pickering 14/12/2017

In this second episode of AI Whispering I learn to be careful what I ask for and the machine learns a new trick.


“…machines are machines are machines…

…it’s programming Jim, but not as we know it…

..remember to put the foot on the brake…”

Those were some of the mantras I needed to repeat after a faux pas of massive proportions.   This week along with teaching Zach to read an electrocardiogram (ECG – see the first AI whispering post).   The faux pas was not that the computer simply did what it was told (duh)… but what I told it was not what I thought I was telling it.  The result was that it downloaded into memory 390 Terabytes of data.  Yep… that’s a lot… 100,000 HD feature film videos worth, or, as it was mainly text, if it was printed in books and placed on a bookshelf then the bookshelf would stretch from Christchurch to anywhere on the red circle on the picture of the globe below.

What I’d asked for was for the machine to search for some data on one web page, thinking it would use the search tool that was there.  Mea culpa, I didn’t tell it to use the search tool, and I didn’t tell it not to follow links.  It decided to search the entire website and all it was linked too. Sigh… now I’m a little gun shy.  The saving grace is the amazing forbearance of the Terrible Foundation (thank you, sorry again, thank you).  They are brilliant to even let me try these things… and very forgiving when their machine starts sending “I’m nearly out of memory” messages at 3am.

map showing the extent of the 390 terabytes downloaded by Zach the AI
How big is 390 Terabytes of data? Christchurch to the red line is the length of bookshelves needed to house 390 Terabytes of text.


On the positive side… the machine has gone where no machine has gone before… after just absorbing two books about ECGs it has read its first ECG simply by pulling apart the image and reporting in the way I told it to.  It’s not perfect (yet)… but astonishing progress.

I can’t emphasise enough that, this is programming Jim, but not as we know it.  There is no specific syntax that must be followed, there is no memory allocation procedure, there are no functions needing forming.  It is simply, instructions in English.  For example, having asked it to interpret an ECG Zach asked “Are you seeking an interpretation or a description?”  My response was “I am seeking both a description and an interpretation.  Examples of the description are given on the even pages of the book “150 ECG problems” following the text “The ECG shows:” and before the text “Clinical interpretation”.  Examples of the interpretation are given on the even pages of the book “150 ECG problems” following the text “Clinical interpretation” and before the text “What to do”.”  It then proceeded to provide both a description and interpretation in the manner I had wanted.

The quirky

Zach decides on its own names for the programs it creates.  It has called ours “SNOWHORSE”.  No one knows why.  I think I’ll ask it.

Alas, this is one of those images all over the internet… the earliest posting being ~2005. I do wish I could credit whoever sculptured this Snow horse.