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AI: Artificially intrusive

National | IBM replaces tech guy with a Virtual Help Desk that may fix things that aren't broken; dot-com downturn doesn't dampen Net use; beware geeks bearing advice

Issue: "Interview with Larry King," July 28, 2001

Virtual autonomics
Goodbye, tech guy. IBM announced a new software package called Virtual Help Desk intended to replace humans in fixing computer problems. With the program, a user can type out questions and receive a response back. As computer complexity and use spread, high-tech developers see this as a natural place to deploy artificial intelligence. Deploying a well-paid professional for every lost password or software glitch can be expensive, and companies often find themselves understaffed. IBM claims the "self-help, self-healing, and self-diagnostic" tool can handle 20,000 calls at once. Virtual Help Desk is like a greatly expanded descendant of Microsoft's Office Assistant, where users type questions to a smiling paper clip. Users either find this a friendly way to find information or despise it as simplistic and confusing. IBM's program is part of a project aimed at reducing the need for human babysitting of computer networks. David Turek, an IBM vice president, says that one program involves software that both detects and solves operating software glitches without human intervention. "It sits and runs in the background and observes and draws conclusions," he explained. "If medication doesn't work, it routes work around the ailing mechanism, then literally makes a phone call to the home of an employee and tells him the problem and the spare parts that are needed." IBM's buzzword for this technology is autonomics, a biological term for the involuntary controls in the central nervous system. The downside, some fear, is that computers controlling computers create new ways for things to go wrong. By shifting power from man to machine, opportunities grow for something to be "fixed" that isn't broken. Surf's still up
Downturn of the dot-com economy has had little effect on Internet use. It even seems healthy, according to the survey released by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Twenty-nine percent of about 2,000 people in a phone poll use the Net more than they did six months ago-compared to 17 percent who use it less. Some of those in the latter category say they are more proficient or have better connections, and thus don't need to stay on as long. Even with the long, slow collapse of countless speculative Internet ventures, only 8 percent of respondents say they saw one of their favorite sites go out of business. "They are able to find other things online to substitute for what they lost," said Lee Rainie, the project's director. This also shows that many "out of the box" ideas cooked up for venture capital had no public appeal whatsoever. Earlier reports showed a slight drop in Internet use, which may have been temporary or seasonal. In May, Telecommunications Reports International found a dip in home online subscribers. Last year, Nielsen/NetRatings found average surfing time dropping by 15 percent between October and December; it went back up again in each of the past two months. But Internet con games are also on the rise. New York Consumer Affairs Commissioner Jane Hoffman complained of a "substantial increase" in fraudulent schemes that target honest citizens. The biggest problem involves Web auctions, in which shoddy goods, inflated prices, and fake bids make up a disproportionate number of scams. "If you have a gut feeling that something is not legitimate, you are probably right," she said. Geek convention
One of Las Vegas' strangest events doesn't involve gambling. Every summer, thousands of current and budding computer hackers gather for a convention called Def Con. It's a place where those who spend countless hours messing with sensitive systems gather to show off, compare notes, and plan pranks. Instead of the corporate attire and flesh-pressing at typical trade shows, these attendees sport black T-shirts and bad social skills. This year's show featured something novel: older hackers and other experts warning the new generation to stay away from criminal activity. Reuters' Elinor Abreu, who covered the event, said they spread the word that a "straight" career in business was far better than the risky world of underground activity. For example, Jack Holleran, who recently retired from the National Security Agency, volunteered at this year's Def Con as a way to reach young hackers. "I think like a parent," he told Ms. Abreu. "Many hackers don't have socialization skills. It's my belief that they deal with people who can understand what they're talking about." This year, an attendee was believed to be the first person arrested under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a severe law that bans attempts to circumvent copy-protection technology. Russian computer programmer Dmitry Sklyarov, who works for Moscow-based ElcomSoft Co., stands accused of distributing the company's copying tools that crack the encryption used on some electronic books in Adobe Acrobat format. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

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