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Sunday, February 20, 2011
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OK, so IBM has pulled off another “machine-trounces-human brain” stunt. Yes, I’m talking about Watson’s resounding triumph against two human trivia experts on Jeopardy this past week. This follows the “Deep Blue” chess matches back in 1996 and ’97, when an IBM chess-playing computer twice bet Gary Kasparov, arguably the best human chess player on the planet. (In 2003, Kasparov fought Deep Junior, a Deep Blue-inspired program able to run on a personal computer, to a tie).

Those IBM programmers and hardware designers are darn good, obviously. However, I admire IBM’s marketing division even more. Watson was a huge advertisement for IBM’s ability to provide customized artificial intelligence to the business community (they could not compete with Dell and Apple on the household computing market, though).

What Watson is: Watson is a prime example of customized artificial intelligence. Watson was built specifically for its role on Jeopardy. It uses neural net programming, a form of parallel logic processing that mimics the human brain’s pattern identification function. It was then tweeked up with certain “hard logic” layers to enhance its specific abilities to decipher an English language question, and then “trained” with many examples of questions and answers. It built up a probability record as to help distinguish the intended meanings of, for example, “time flies like an arrow” versus “fruit flies like a banana”. It was linked to a huge memory of facts, beyond what any human brain could hold. So, Watson gained the capacity from its team of human creators to decipher a Jeopardy-like question, and then to select an answer from its huge library of facts. And of course, once a machine gains a human-like capacity, it can be expanded in scale well beyond what a human body can do (i.e., a machine can be made five times as big, take in five times as much energy, and thus have five times the human capacity to accomplish a goal; just as a tractor can out-pull or out-plow a stout workman in a farm field).

What Watson is not: Watson is NOT a self-replicating being living amidst a society of other similar beings, in constant communication with those beings in a web of meta-networking and emergent ‘crowd wisdom’. Watson does not fend for itself every moment to survive, and form understandings with its neighbors to trade and cooperate. Watson is spoon fed its electricity and upkeep, and does not have to solve problems regarding its daily survival. Watson does not have nor require the generalized analysis capabilities that we and our low animal predecessors need to keep the species going in the various environments available on the planet Earth.

But of course, this might yet happen. We might yet develop machines tasked to fend for themselves, machines that can affiliate with fellow machines and exchange information about and resources from the environment, that compete to reproduce based upon the best survival adaptations to their specific environment, and that have a mechanism to mutate their design and programming for trial-and-error selection via this competition process. What then? Will they evolve into super-humans? I.e., like us but bigger and faster and stronger and smarter, using better materials and advanced means of computing and communicating? And making use of better energy-generating and providing processes? Yea, maybe. At that point we have something to worry about.

The bigger question, again not applicable to Watson, is whether the mysterious facility we call “consciousness” would emerge in these autonomous, socialized beings. If so, perhaps they would understand what it is like to be us, what it is like to have feelings. Then maybe – just maybe – they could sympathize with what we go through. Perhaps they might then cut the human species a break, and keep us around on a “little brother and sister” basis. If not though, if their inspiration and ultimate goal is some sort of logically devised notion of global optimality – then our species is cooked.

For now, though, enjoy the IBM stunts. But enough stunts might eventually add up to “artificial” beings with self-survival and reproduction abilities, woven together into their own “meta” (i.e. social) network. I’m not sure that I would want to be around when that happens.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:51 pm      

  1. Jim, I watched–no attempted to watch–the Jeopardy! programs that were supposed to be so astounding that I’d be awe struck. I settled down to watch the first one: literally fell asleep within 10 minutes of the program starting. B-o-r-i-n-g does’t describe it. My first reaction was: This is just a big advertisement for IBM. Then I watched the second one, thinking maybe there would be something I missed, and I should give closer attention to the whole thing. Within the first minute or two I found myself doing something else and thus I missed the 2nd program. I think there might have been a 3rd program but I’m not sure. Didn’t bother.

    As far as I am concerned, the whole thing was one big advertisement for IBM, saying: Don’t you think we are wonderful! They had an audience filled with what had to be IBM people who actually applauded when Watson got an answer “right.” I wondered: Who are they applauding? Themselves? What was supposed to astound me had the same effect on me that any advertisement has–simply “turn off” the “attention” part of my brain and find something more interesting to attend to.

    Why would “they” think that loading a computer with practially all the trivia info available and then thinking that a “competition” between 2 men and the computer could conceivable be interesting? It isn’t.

    And another tangential comment: Supposedly now they have the computer generated ability to tranlate human speech into written words. And I think they must be using it for closed captioning on TV. Being somewhat hard of hearing, I use the closed captioning to give me a boost on knowing what is being said.

    At first I tho’t that they had actual people using court reporting techniques to do this. I was dismayed when reading the closed captions. I could not figure out how in the world “they” could get some of the wording they were using–until someone told me that likely “they” are using a computer program to do the closed captioning. Let me tell you: It’s in it’s early stages. I was going to put in a “very” before “early stages” in the previous sentence; then I realized I couldn’t fill in enough “verys” to adequately describe how early the stages of this new method are.

    Unless there is a preprogramed script actually written down which they can load into the computer, the ability of a computer to translate human speech is practially nil and totally ridiculous. If a real person is actually speaking on TV, say in a news program, what the computer “spits” out is ridiculous, nonsensical, and completely lacking in any sensible translation for a person to understand what the real person may be saying.

    It’s no wonder to me that IBM (or whatever company) has absolutely no interest in advertising the fact that they are the ones doing the closed captioning.

    So Watson did not only *not* impress me; it was worse: It totally bored me and I found myself with absolutely no interest whatsoever in it. And since I’m just a regular person like most other people, I doubt I’m the only person who had the same reaction to the whole demonstration of the “wonder” of Watson. Bording doesn’t describe it; I can’t find the an adequate word that describes how underwhelmed I was by the whole thing. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — February 21, 2011 @ 10:38 am

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