Archive for August, 2008

How Much AI Can You Get For 5 GBP?

Monday, August 25th, 2008

A lot, it looks like.

I recently bought 20Q Version 2, an electronic toy, for my daughter from Amazon UK for a little more than 5 GBP. I don’t write about toys in this blog but 20Q Version 2 seems to use Artificial Intelligence technics, so it qualifies as a gadget / gizmo, which is a staple of Talk of Many Things.

20Q Version 2 is the electronic version of the popular 20 Questions game where you think of an item and 20Q asks you questions that you must answer in Yes, No, Sometimes and Unknown. In most cases, 20Q guesses your item within 20 questions. In Version 2, 20Q’s artificial intelligence is even more accurate. It claims to have new questions, new answers, an UNDO button, an easier-to-read backlit screen — and, above, all “more attitude”.

Q #
20Q’s Questions My Answer
1. Is it Animal, Vegetable or Mineral? No
2.  Does it have buttons?  No
3. Do you use it at work? No
4. Does it bring joy to people? Sometimes
5. Is it held when used? Yes
6. Do you clean it regularly? Yes
7. Is it smaller than a loaf of bread Yes
8. Does it have a handle? Yes
9. Do you use it in cooking? No
10. Does it go in your mouth? No
11. Is it considered valuable? Yes
12. Is it small? Yes
13. Is it larger than a pound of butter? No
14. Is it made of metal? Sometimes
15. Do you use it at night? No
16. Is it decorative? Yes
17. Is it round? Sometimes
18. Is it colorful? Sometimes
19. Is it manmade? Yes
20. Is it smaller than a golf ball? Yes

My daughter, her friends — and her parents! — have tried out at least 25 items; 20Q has guessed them all correctly (though it did take 23-24 questions in a couple of cases).

Let me give you one example:


Can you guess what the item was?

Click here for the right answer cracked by 20Q.

Here’s another example where 20Q cracked the answer within 20 questions.


Q #
20Q’s Questions My Answer
1. Is it Animal, Vegetable or Mineral? No
2. Does it have buttons?  Yes
3. Is it smaller than a loaf of bread? Yes
4. Do you carry it in your pocket? No
5. Is it square shaped? No
6. Would it be given as a gift? Yes
7. Does it bring joy to people? Sometimes
8. Do you use this daily? No
9. Are parts of it made of plastic? Yes
10. Is it soft? No
11. Does it contain liquid? No
12. Are parts of it made of metal? Yes
13. Does it have writing on it? Yes
14. Is it small? Yes
15. Does it break if dropped? Unknown
16. Can you play with it? Yes
17. Can you use it at school? No
18. Is it round? Yes
19. Can it fit in an envelope? No
20. Is it used in a sport? No

Your guess?

Click here for 20Q’s right answer.

I’m sure you’ll now believe my earlier comments about 20Q and self-reference!


When Confirmed Plane Tickets Go Void

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

Earlier this year, my wife made a booking for a Virgin Atlantic flight from Bombay to London for herself and my daughter through an online travel agency ( in India. Soon afterwards, she received the necessary confirmations and, after a few days, found that the cost of the tickets was duly debited to her credit card account.

A couple of days before the departure date, she was able to view her confirmed booking on Virgin’s website.

So far so good.

However, when she reached the Bombay airport on the day of travel, she was shocked to hear from the Virgin Atlantic check-in agent that her tickets were VOID! When she immediately called me in London, I checked Virgin’s website and found that the booking (PNR = CG465S) was very much showing up as valid and was permitting me to go ahead and complete the check-in formalities!

This was ridiculous!

When I offered to fax this page to Virgin in Bombay as proof that the booking was still valid, they weren’t interested. They maintained that their system was showing a VOID status and there was no way they would let my family travel on that ticket – that’s that. According to Virgin, if my family wanted to travel, they’d have to buy new tickets. Faced with no other alternative and the flight due to depart in two hours, that’s what my wife did.

A few minutes later, I was able to view the new booking (PNR = F13L5M) on Virgin’s website.

This is perhaps the first time that the same passenger names were showing up on two different PNRs on the same flight – something which I never thought was possible.

Anyway, after my family reached London – on the planned date but after having paid twice! – we took this up with Virgin. They told us to pursue our refund request with the online travel agency from whom we had purchased the tickets. When we did that, the travel agency immediately promised to process our refund. They did this without offering any explanation for what happened – though readers of my previous post “Beware of Online Travel Agencies”  might have already guessed what must have transpired behind the scenes.

While the story had a happy ending, my belief in the system is so badly shaken as a result of these recent experiences that I wonder if I’ll ever book any tickets in the future through an online travel agency.