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Visitors' choice

Technology | Brooklyn Museum gathers demographic data by letting website visitors design exhibit

Issue: "Libyan exodus," March 26, 2011

In an art museum, a curator designs an exhibition around a concept, artist, or time period, then chooses what will hang on the walls. But the Brooklyn Museum's chief of technology, Shelley Bernstein, recently tried something new: letting the museum's fans choose. The paintings in an exhibition called "Split Second: Indian Paintings," which will go on view in July, were chosen by visitors to the website.

Visitors to the Brooklyn Museum's website who wish to participate provide their age and gender. Then, they participate in a series of tests. One involves a question about a color or mood in a painting; another shows a pair of paintings for four seconds, then asks the visitor to rank them. Bernstein got the idea while reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, which discusses how humans make decisions. The demographic data gathered by the experiment will give insight into which characteristics are preferred by different age groups or genders. And when the show is on display, the labels next to the works will explain how they were chosen.

None too human

Watson, the computer that defeated Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter last month, isn't the first computer built by IBM to compete against humans. In 1996, another IBM creation named Deep Blue famously competed against world champion chess player Garry Kasparov and lost, but a year later, Deep Blue beat Kasparov. (When asked recently for his opinion on Watson, Kasparov said it was little more than a toy unless the makers find an application beyond game shows.)

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But while Deep Blue's logic was built to anticipate possible outcomes on a chessboard, Watson was created to interpret a question and gauge how certain it was of its answer. Such artificially intelligent computers are still a novelty. After Watson's victory, scientists speculated that Watson-like systems will soon be popping up in everyday life. After all, many problems are easier to tackle than winning at Jeopardy! But the same scientists say it's unlikely that computers will be carrying on intelligent conversations like those in the movies any time soon-human brains, they agree, are far more complicated: We're not ready to build affectionate robots-yet.

Stream teams

The competition for digitally delivered video grows fiercer: Amazon recently stepped up its game, letting subscribers to its free shipping Amazon Prime service ($79/year) also stream videos from a library of 5,000 movies at no added charge. Amazon already offers digital movies for rental or purchase, and users can watch the movies on a number of devices, such as the Roku, TiVo, and some Blu-Ray players and HDTVs. This seems to be a direct challenge to Netflix, which already provides video rental and streaming video to members.

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