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psychoceramics: Mentifex: A.I. (meme) loose on the Net

The mentifeX Files for SURFACE TENSION Column by Linton Robinson 1175 wds

        For cyberfreeks, being around Seattle in the pre-Y2K era
is a ground zero set: like being into acid rock in the sixties
Bay Area, or steam technology in Victorian England.  Or a control
addict in the thirties Berlin, I suppose.  Whatever else, it must
have been exciting.  And for that matter, we haven't seen how the
computer thing turns out yet.  Our futures are being formatted by
people who didn't figure out the calendar was going to roll over
in just forty years.  And, really, the difference between
"accelerated obsolescence" and "final solution" is kind of hazy. 
        But, in a way, it's hard to see from the street that Seattle
homeboys are big kahunas in the cyber-universe.  Maybe you didn't hang
around with Cobain and Vetter at Murphy's, but at least you could go
see them play.  Where are the local websites that push the envelopes
of the real edgy stuff: virtual, jack-in, artificial intelligence?
There's one:  and everybody all over the world interested in AI or
memetics or robotics knows about it.  It's just that nobody knows
what the hell it's all about.  It's the Mentifex website on the
Seattle Community Network ( http://www.scn.org/~mentifex ) -- home
lair of the ubiquitous Mentifex Diagram.  It's on all the big forums
and enshrined on the major CD-ROM's that are the basic library of AI.
        It looks like a flow-chart full of alphanumeric yada yantra:
it claims to be the design of the mind of the future.  Or at least the
language and grammar.  To AI fiends, it's all the same thing.  Even you,
your own sacred self, are in essence merely a language or grammar,
a standing pattern, a code, a mantra, a hierarchy of representations,
a program of programs, the mother of all boards.  Call it what you will; 
structure is the only difference between flesh and Spam. 
        But it's not figures, and certainly not facts, that have pinned
Mentifex up on the world syntelligence map--it's rumors.  Which,
don't knock.  What would J.D. Salinger be without obscurity and rumors?
A one-book S.E. Hinton, that's what.  The big rumble is that Mentifex
is not "about" AI, is not "author of" or "theory about" AI, but actually
IS an AI.  It's also widely rumored that more than one AI haunts the
Internet, and that not all of them are benign.  A deeper rumor level
says that one of them has been programmed to post in Esperanto
(wouldn't an intelligence prefer an artificial language?)  We can
trust the corresponding authorities to get to the bottom of it.
But Mentifex has something other rumors merely envy--an address.
The Area 51 of AI paranoia is the Mentifex website.
        Another theory is that Mentifex is a person (or WAS) who created
an AI programmed to post and respond to mail.  Also perhaps to crawl the
Web, searching for any reference to itself or areas that sound "right" for
it, then generating posts and ripostes.  The only identity the Mentifex
site traces to is the questionable name "Arthur T. Murray" (same name as the
dance studio that once advertised "anyone will want to be your partner")
or the equally suggestive initials ATM.
        Making the search more difficult is the general confusion about
Mentifex and his (her?) (its?) proper place in the AI pantheon.  A lot of
people think he is a nutcake spamming the galaxy with an incomprehensible
diagram full of weird diacriticals and signifying nothing.  Others, and
they include a lot of the very heavy hitters in AI, robotics, and
memetics, take Mentifex seriously and express continuing interest in his
codes, whether they are or aren't a self portrait.  Perhaps even more
tellingly, people like William Gibson "think they've heard of it". 
Hovering around the peripheral supraliminals of a cat like the Neuromancer,
it doesn't matter if you're a person or a program--you're somebody. 
        The only major clue is the inscrutable diagram, which is the tip
of a Titanic-class iceberg.  It's a catchy little hook like E=MC2 that
everybody mentions, but nobody actually mathematically understands.  The
glyphs are backed up by line after line of code, which gets dissected by
heavyweight line-by-liners on forums devoted to "Forth" language and such. 
        But esoteric symbols never do much to start or dispel rumors.
And unlike many conspiracy/hoax rumors that swarm with "proofs" and
arguments, the "Synthifex" theories pretty much rest on allegations of
hearsay (the AI grapevine is small, select and highstrung, vibrating like
worldwide cobweb to the proper intrusion).  And on a simple experiment: 
"Have you READ this guy?" 
        Which gets to the only known criterion for whether an intelligence
is real or artificial, the Turing test.  If you're cyber-chatting with
either a person of machine and can't tell the difference, then what's
the difference?  Of course, Turing set his tests up in a laboratory:
the Internet has turned that experimental design into an environment.
It's like a milieu invented for AI's before they even existed.  Creating
a perfect world for a being, then leaving it unpopulated, would be the
kind of vacuum that grosses out Mother Nature--theological malpractice.
        So it gets back to language.  And there is a certain quality to
Mentifex humor and exposition that is, well, alien.  Like a foreigner
trying to "pass".  Though the oddness isn't entirely inconsistent with
the identity sketched out by certain local lectroslackers who claim to
have met Mentifex (or possibly Murray)--that he's a seminary bachelor
with a background in classical Greek and Latin who lives in a hermit
burrow and supplements his diet by diving for crawdads in Green Lake.
A sort of urban "UnaBumbler". 
        Other theorists point out that certain oddball Mentifex speech
ellipses, such as breaking into German or Russian almost at random, and
stringing together clumps of "ten dollar" words in ways even George Bush
couldn't make sense out of, substantiate one detractor who claims to have
traced the Mentifex origins back to a Russian military translation program
developed for disseminating Cold War FAX messages simultaneously to all
Warsaw Bloc nations.  Allegedly the Soviet program was called "Mentzifax". 
        Then again, this certain suave, haywired "Company" type who hangs
at the Honey Bear Bakery with his gorgeous Eurasian girlfriend, Range
Rover, and business card listing voice mail in some mysterious blackbag
enclave on the Microsoft campus might be behind the whole thing, but
declines comment.  So.  Who'd you rather have controlling the first robot
mind to challenge human intelligence: the Unabomber or Bill Gates?  Both
obsolescence specialists, you'll notice. 
        I vote for aliens, but who really knows where THOSE guys are
coming from?  Another rumor, (which you are reading for the first time
right here in VOLTAGE) is that Mentifex essentially invented itself,
spawned by random electronic accidents from some overly clever virus,
evolving into a rudimentary consciousness, then coping with its
environment--lately to include its resident web site and even the ATM
identity which was possibly created to fullfill its own nascent need to
have a creator.  User as religion, a la "Tron".  Mentifex just COULD be
trouble.  Or a messiah, which is about as troubling as an intelligence can
<PRE>                     THE MENTIFEX DIAGRAM
  Hearing    Vision    Concepts Volition Emotion   Motor Output
 /iiiiiii\  /!i!i!i!\                             /YYYYYYYYYYYY\
| ||||||| || ||||||| |   T                       | |||||||||||| |
| ||||||| || | ___ | |   +                       | |||||||||||| |
| ||||||| ||  /   \  |   +                       | |S|||||||||| |
| ||||||| || (image)-|---+_                      | |H|||||||||| |
| ||||||| ||  \___/  |  /  \                     | |A|||||||||| |
| ||||||| ||         | (idea)               __   | |K|||||||||| |
| | ||||| ||         |  \__/---------------/  \  | |E|||R|||||| |
| |d------||---------|---+        ____    (fear)-|--*|||U|||||| |
| ||||o|| ||         |   +-------/    \----\__/  | |||||N|||P|| |
| ||g|||| ||         |   +      / de-  \---------|------*|||E|| |
| || |||| ||         |   +     (  ci-   )        | |||||||||T|| |
| ||||||| ||         |   +      \ sion /---------|----------*|| |
| ||||||| ||         |   +       \____/          | |||||||||||| |
<a href="http://www.voltage-zine.com"> Voltage </a>

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