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