Monday, February 21, 2011

HAL Hath No Fury Like a Watson’s Scorn

By Tony Nunes, Dreaming Genius co-editor

Last Monday began a three-day tournament that may or may not have repercussions on the remainder of human existence, as we know it.  The jury is still out.  On the long running quiz show Jeopardy, two former champions of the game went up against a new and much heralded foe, the likes of which have only been seen in the writings of Isaac Asimov and Phillip K Dick.  Watson, an AI program designed by the technology gurus at IBM would become an overnight sensation, a champion that has posed the question; who is the real winner here?

Watson runs off of the room sized POWER7 processor constructed by IBM to facilitate natural language computing.  At its core, Watson is a question answering supercomputer, one that can clearly discern the cadence and metonymy of the human language.  There are numerous camps of varying opinions surrounding the success and limelight of the Watson program.  Will Watson be a facilitator of positive change, doom, or little importance to the future of mankind?


A Glimmering “Beep Boop”

“Any teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be.”
                                    -Arthur C. Clarke, Electronic Tutors (1980)

AI has long been toyed with.  Finding practical applications to robotics has led to great leaps in assembly line ease, and the safe handling of bomb deterrence and modern warfare.  Supercomputing AI is a tad different however, presuming a reliance on the computing itself as the last word.  Expecting a computer to obsequiously cater to our needs may be a long shot, but IBM’s planned practical applications of Watson may just lead to such a breakthrough. 

After winning at Jeopardy, Watson’s next stop will be the world of medical diagnosing.  The goal is for Watson to become a cyber physician’s assistant, utilizing a wealth of preprogrammed knowledge to quickly and accurately answer queries a doctor may pose pertaining to the medical needs of their patients.  The website WebMD attempts a much smaller scale, far less sophisticated model for the general public, leaving an over-abundance of self-diagnosing computer users in its wake.  The phenomenon of WebMD users is different than Watson however, as in hospitals, trained doctors would make the final call.  Watson is merely meant to be there to quickly disseminate decades of information and assist in the proper diagnosis and treatment of timely or curious cases.  Sounds good on paper, however if doctors grow to rely too much on the new technology, then the emotional link to knowledge may fade, and patient care may be left in more sterile hands.  Instinct is a key component of the human intelligence, and modern computing has yet to conquer that aspect of our psyche.  Yet. 

On IBM’s website, above the information on Watson’s Jeopardy conquest they have written “Humans Win.”  If used sparingly and with a clear head, the Watson technology could prove a great tool in future applications, and in some small way, we do win.  If misused or over relied on, many believe that Watson could lead to a far different future. 

A Glimmering End.  “Beep Bang!”

“Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence.  Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”
                                    -Vernor Vinge, The Coming Technological Singularity (1993)

When Ken Jennings, one of Watson’s human opponents on Jeopardy, finally gave in to his inevitable defeat, he quoted a Simpsons episode alongside his answer; “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.”  Fiction has long had a love affair with robotic dominance, an obvious allegory to the rapidly evolving technological presence throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. 

The sentient supercomputer HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind as a robotic tool spawned from mans limitations.  In the end, HAL feels used and threatened, overcoming these feelings with an aggression towards his human programmers.  In reality, feelings are what set us apart from technology.  Watson can no more exhibit sentience than an IPhone can.  Yet.

There is a popular school of thought within the futurist camp that foresees a technological singularity as a looming means to our inevitable end.  Vernor Vinge, one of the leading voices of this camp believes that a technological innovation will at some point so quickly throw us ahead of what we thought possible, that our future outlook becomes impossible to predict.  The implication of massive computer networking, human/computer interfacing, and supercomputers like Watson may someday prove Vinge’s theories correct.  Reliance on these technologies and the rapid changes they create will lead to a loss of control, and inevitable end.

Is Watson the beginning of our end?

A Glimmer Passes. “Beep Blah.”    

Computers are useless.  They can only give you answers.”
                                    -Pablo Picasso

In the end, Watson was created simply (yet not really) to quickly comprehend and breakdown pre-programmed data in search of an answer to the questions it is asked.  While Watson does have the ability to learn, that ability is far different than the ability of the human mind.  Correlation between concepts and ideas is nothing more than an algorithm to Watson.  To humans, this correlation intertwines our emotions, experiences, and understanding to formulate an answer.  Emotional connections give much more than answers, they give understanding, which in turn leads to new ideas.  When Watson hears music, it sees data and patterns.  When we hear music, we feel and remember something that resonates differently for each and every one of us. 

In the end, IBM’s experiment is forward thinking and useful.  Watson may end up contributing to the saving of lives.  But will it lead to the ending of lives as well?  My guess is no.  Computers are endlessly useful.  They allow us to create and connect with others on a level we once only dreamed of.  At the end of the day however, nothing compares to actual physical and emotional contact, something that Watson will never be able to compute.    

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