By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
October 5, 2011

A computer you can chat with. Hmm. Where have we seen this before? 

It was hard for veteran tech reporters to watch Scott Forstall’s demonstration of the iPhone 4S’s new Siri “intelligent assistant” system (see here, starting at the 73-minute mark) without recalling one of Apple’s (AAPL) most embarrassing episodes from the John Sculley era.

Sculley, whose previous job had been, in Steve Jobs’ unkind words, selling sugar water for Pepsi, was seduced while CEO of Apple by the siren call of artificial intelligence research. In 1987 (after Jobs had left) he commissioned a pair of videos that would demonstrate the kind of computers he assumed his engineers would be able to deliver in the near future.

The “Knowledge Navigator” video below, in which a professor conducts a conversation with computerized bow-tie wearing butler, was the highlight of Sculley’s keynote speech at Educom 1997. It was widely criticized by the research community for creating expectations that computer science might never be able to fill.

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