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"The science fiction method is dissection and reconstruction. You look at the world around you, and take it apart into its components. Then you take some of those components, throw them away, and plug in different ones, start it up and see what happens."
- Frederik Pohl

Dataset  
  A portable computer with multiple screens and capabilities.  

Datasets were like advanced laptop computers; they also had automated language learning programs for children.

The other three continued to play with the dataset's latches. Finally they pulled the big, floppy ears simultaneously: the dataset popped open, and the top window went into Johanna's startup routine -- an anim of herself saying "Shame on you, Jefri. Stay out of my things!" The four creatures went rigid, their eyes suddenly wide. ...

The sounds and vids kept the monsters amused for several minutes. Eventually their random fiddlings convinced the dataset that somebody really young had opened up the box, and it shifted into kindermode. ...

"My name is--" Johanna heard a short burst of gobble with an overtone that seemed to buzz right through her head. "What is your name?" Johanna knew it was all part of the language script. There was no way the creature could understand the individual words it was saying. That "my name, your name" pair was repeated over and over again between the children in the language program. A vegetable would get the point eventually. ...

From A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge.
Published by Tor Books in 1992
Additional resources -

Here's another passage describing the teaching mode for children:

So the Tines... had been playing with the Pink Oliphaunt, and hadn't been stopped by the booby traps. That was better than Jefri ever managed. It was clear they had fallen into the kinder mode language programs... When the dataset noted sufficiently assinine responses it would adapt its behavior, first for young children, and - if that didn't work - for youngsters who didn't even speak Samnorsk. With just a little cooperation from Johanna, they could learn her language.

Thanks to Winchell Chung of Project Rho for contributing this item.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from A Fire Upon The Deep
  More Ideas and Technology by Vernor Vinge
  Tech news articles related to A Fire Upon The Deep
  Tech news articles related to works by Vernor Vinge

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