Computers are great problem-solvers. But can they be made to dream up ideas as well? Toshiba Corp. software engineers think so, and they have spent three years trying to prove it. In late June, they unveiled a prototype piece of programming modestly nicknamed the Fountain of Wisdom.
The Fountain is written in an advanced computer language called Prolog. The idea is to feed the program a series of declarative sentences--for instance, "steak equals a broiled piece of meat"--from which it extracts basic principles on fields such as cooking, chemistry, or computer science. Acquiring widespread knowledge on a given subject takes half a day on a workstation. But once that's done, the program can cull through commercial data bases, drawing analogies and conjuring concepts. For example, having learned about multimedia computers that handle data, voice, and moving images, the Fountain recently suggested livening up an electronic business directory with color pictures stored en CD-ROM.
That's an obvious idea, but Toshiba researchers contend others are brilliant. Such as? The company won't say.