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Computer intelligence book explores humanity's foibles

By Kevin Dicus
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
November 26, 1999
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"Hello Alice." With these innocuous words "Exegesis" (Vintage, $11), by Astro Teller, begins, creating a relationship between the novel's main characters, Alice and Edgar, in completely unique and surreal terms.

"Exegesis" is written as a series of e-mails between Alice Lu, a graduate student in computer science at Stanford University, and Edgar, her thesis project. Edgar, which is an acronym for "Eager Discovery Gather And Retrieval," began as a computer program designed simply to organize information found on the Internet and send it back to Alice.

What Alice suddenly realizes through these communications is that the information Edgar receives has increased his level of awareness, granting him an increasingly human artificial intelligence.

"Exegesis" is a postmodern "Dr. Faustus" as Edgar's sole motivation for existence is the acquisition of knowledge.

"I care to explore and understand the world," he writes to Alice. Yet unlike the good doctor, this knowledge becomes a means of freedom and self-preservation for him. However, the consequence of his exploration draws him into the same tragic fate.

Through these e-mails, the reader witnesses the computer program as it becomes more human and insightful. Reading everything from the complete works of Shakespeare to secret FBI files, Edgar is exposed to certain human conditions that we think little about. And in trying to understand them as an objective observer, he questions our innate motivations in ways humans don't consider. In his ignorance and lust for understanding, Edgar unknowingly brings up some very insightful points.

Admittedly, "Exegesis" can be a pretty quick read. It's fast paced and written in an easy, everyday language, but amidst this simplicity is a complex subject. Teller, a Ph.D. student specializing in artificial intelligence at Carnegie Mellon, has created in Edgar not only a fascinating possibility in the future of computer science, but also a witness and critic toward the human condition.

Disparities in human nature and hypocrisies in our actions do not escape Edgar's seeking mind, and how he relates these to Alice in his painfully factual way causes the reader to also consider the way we live our lives.

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