The Implications of Watson

Watson, the supercomputer contestant on Jeopardy this week represents a stunning achievement in computer programming.  People not familiar with computers, programming and natural language processing will have no clue to how impressive Watson’s performance is, but it has far reaching implications.  Jeopardy is the perfect challenge for demonstrating the machine’s ability to process English.  The game requires the understanding allusions, puns, puzzles. alliterations – almost every kind of word play.  This might look like a smart gimmick to get IBM publicity, but it’s so much more.

Computers can process information if its formatted and carefully structured – but most of the world’s knowledge is outside the range of a SQL query.  Watson is a machine designed to take in information like we do, through natural language.  When it succeeds it will be a more magnificent achievement than landing men on the moon.

While I was watching the intro to the second day show and listening to the designers of Watson I felt rather humbled by my puny knowledge of computers.  I felt like a dog looking up at my master.   Most people like to think they are smart and intelligent, but when they meet people with brains that far exceed their own minds it’s troublesome.  A great novel about this is Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany.  It’s about a young poet who thinks he’s having original experiences until he meets an older poet who has already done everything the younger man has.

How will we feel when the world is full of Watsons and they are the intellectual giants and we’re the lab rats?  IBM built Watson to data mine natural language repositories – think libraries, the Internet, or NSA spying.  The descendants of Watson will be able to write papers that leave human PhD candidates in the dust.  One of the Watson designers said they built Watson to handle information overload.  Of course he assumed Watson would be a tool like a hammer and humans would be in control – but will it always be that way?

Watson cannot see or hear, but there are other AI researchers working on those problems.  We’re very close to having machines like those in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or When H.A.R.L.I.E. Was One or Galatea 2.2.  Right now Watson is way too big to put into a robot body so he will live immobile like HAL and WOPR, but that will change too.

Real life has seldom caught up with the wild imaginations of science fiction.  I had hoped manned exploration of the solar system would have happened in my lifetime but that is not meant to be.  I’m starting to wonder if robots and intelligent machines will.  What will that mean?  I don’t think there is any going back, we just have to surf the changes.

NOVA has an excellent overview of Watson that you can watch online.

JWH – 2/15/11

8 thoughts on “The Implications of Watson”

  1. That was a very good article and I look forward to reading some of the books recommended in it, but I have just one question. Will there actually be an awareness within the AI that experiences Life, and a Will and Desire by which the AI can direct and control its Life? Or will it be, as impressive and accomplished as it is…just a series of cause and effect that receive input, process Data and then spit out the appropriate response/action…all the while as dead and devoid of experiences as a Stone?

    1. It’s too soon to tell. But I look at this way. Nature evolved more and more complex life and our conscious minds are a byproduct of that evolution. I tend to think machine awareness will eventually be a byproduct of machine evolution. We don’t understand why we’re conscious self-aware beings, but I’ve seen some good theories and none of them preclude the same thing happening in machines.

      I just started rereading When H.A.R.L.I.E Was One and it explores these ideas.

  2. I’ve done the research and the more I think about it the more I think you’re simply wrong. I believe no matter what the evidence to the contrary, someone like you has a steel trap mind and will NEVER acknowledge the possibility of a spiritual aspect to reality. You made your mind up many years ago and you WILL NOT YIELD. I have experienced something that for me proves it to the contrary…Gnosis. Its experience that can’t be denied…I’m smart, but I’m not that smart. From now until the day I die I HAVE NO DOUBT…I assure you.

    1. I’m not that smart Scott, so I’m willing to accept the possibility that I can be wrong in any of my beliefs. I even like the idea of spirituality and do a lot of reading about religion, but I’m not a believer, that’s true. Now I’m curious about your reply here. Are you saying because I believe that artificial intelligence is possible that it precludes a spiritual world, souls and God? Can’t AI exist in your spiritual world?

      What if we build a super Watson and it also sees a spiritual component to our universe? Of course, I will not know what to think then.

  3. Hello James
    Thanks for writing this article.
    Wether AI can evolve a spirituallity is very interesting to speculate on, but I wonder how we humans will cope with and adapt to the end of job. The kind of mindless jobs that our educational systems have prepared our society to do. Showing up will nolonger be required.
    The creative initiative taking required to adapt to the tsunami of technological change that’s approaching is just not there for those who just simply want something to do.
    AI is just the tip of the ice burge. Our entire philosophy of education has to change if we have any hope of adapting in this brave new world.

    1. Change is relentless. It’s very hard to be Amish. Also, knowledge is like Pandora’s box, once it’s open you can’t put it back in. Oh, I suppose a collapse of civilization might help us forget, but remember books like A Canticle for Leibowitz? Also, after many social upheavels new social orders develop that are better. We are seeing a lot of problems today, but that doesn’t mean we can’t solve them. Despite what many people might think we’re living in the absolute best of times right now. But you’re right Ross, we need a new educational system, the one we have is too broke to patch up.

  4. Jim, I used to have a dog that was a lot faster than me and had a much better nose, too. Should I have been troubled by that?

    Likewise, if a computer is better than me at some things, should I be troubled by it? I’m reminded of this quote by Emo Philips: “A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick boxing.”

    Heh, heh. Seriously, I don’t see why I should feel threatened, even if AIs become sentient. After all, they still won’t have emotions, they still won’t have the baggage from human evolution that would cause them to WANT certain things.

    Why would a computer “want” to dominate humans or even to survive? We think that goes without saying, but it’s only because we’re animals. We evolved this way, because we wouldn’t have survived otherwise. I’m not saying we’d be better without emotions, not at all. But a sentient AI would likely be VERY different from us – so different that I can’t imagine it even being a threat.

    Of course, we could program computers into being a real threat, if we were dumb enough to think that was a good idea. Like Fred Saberhagen’s Berserkers, for example. But the motivation would come from people. What kind of motivation would a computer have? Likely, only what we decided it should have.

    1. I don’t worry about AI being a threat, but many people do. I would feel more depressed over meeting a person that knows more than I do in my favorite subjects than I would over meeting a smart machine. When I meet smart people it makes me wished that I had tried harder. When I see something like Watson, I just think, “Oh, what a marvel.”

      I am envious of Watson’s programmers. I can only admire Watson, and feel no competition.

      I’m looking forward to AI machines. I just hope they are kinder to us than we were to all the animals below us in the great chain of being.

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