Wouldn't it be cool if there were an electronic diary that you could write to and it would write back?" asked my brilliant eight-year-old, Zoe. Thus began another Mr. Peabody Night in the Quittner household, with me, Zoe and Ella, 6, cruising the Web in search of infotainment. We piled into the Mac, slipped out onto the Infobahn and, faster than you can say, "Open the pod doors, Hal," found ourselves in the company of Julia.

Julia is a computer program, a piece of genuine artificial intelligence with a crude front end (you type as if chatting on America Online). She...

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