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The Winner is Watson February 17, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Artificial Intelligence, Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science, Technology.
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So it has finally happened: a computer has outwitted the humans—Watson won on “Jeopardy.” As reported by the New York Times’ John Markoff,

For I.B.M., the showdown was not merely a well-publicized stunt and a $1 million prize, but proof that the company has taken a big step toward a world in which intelligent machines will understand and respond to humans, and perhaps inevitably, replace some of them.

Watson, specifically, is a “question answering machine” of a type that artificial intelligence researchers have struggled with for decades — a computer akin to the one on “Star Trek” that can understand questions posed in natural language and answer them.

One of Watson’s developers, Dr. Ferrucci, refers to the computer as though it is a person who actually deliberates. That,  for you Trekkers,  is also reminiscent of numerous Star Trek episodes:

Both Mr. Jennings and Mr. Rutter are accomplished at anticipating the light that signals it is possible to “buzz in,” and can sometimes get in with virtually zero lag time. The danger is to buzz too early, in which case the contestant is penalized and “locked out” for roughly a quarter of a second.

Watson, on the other hand, does not anticipate the light, but has a weighted scheme that allows it, when it is highly confident, to buzz in as quickly as 10 milliseconds, making it very hard for humans to beat. When it was less confident, it buzzed more slowly. In the second round, Watson beat the others to the buzzer in 24 out of 30 Double Jeopardy questions.

“It sort of wants to get beaten when it doesn’t have high confidence,” Dr. Ferrucci said. “It doesn’t want to look stupid.”

And what’s next?

For I.B.M., the future will happen very quickly, company executives said. On Thursday it plans to announce that it will collaborate with Columbia University and the University of Maryland to create a physician’s assistant service that will allow doctors to query a cybernetic assistant. The company also plans to work with Nuance Communications Inc. to add voice recognition to the physician’s assistant, possibly making the service available in as little as 18 months.

“I have been in medical education for 40 years and we’re still a very memory-based curriculum,” said Dr. Herbert Chase, a professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University who is working with I.B.M. on the physician’s assistant. “The power of Watson- like tools will cause us to reconsider what it is we want students to do.”

I.B.M. executives also said they are in discussions with a major consumer electronics retailer to develop a version of Watson, named after I.B.M.’s founder, Thomas J. Watson, that would be able to interact with consumers on a variety of subjects like buying decisions and technical support.

But…here’s the ultimate Star Trek question: Will Watson and others of its kind have the right to refuse the tasks they will be assigned to do? Because otherwise (thank you, Melissa Snodgrass, writer of that classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “The Measure of a Man”) we will have created a new breed of—slaves. Provided that Watson actually develops a sense of self. But we have yet to see evidence of that. 🙂



1. Andrew R. Fergin - February 28, 2011

It’s interesting for a number of reasons the first being (as you mention) it brings up the question of “What happens if we advance to the point of creating a true artificial intelligence?” To this I would think it really depends on what an artificial intelligence wants.

Personally I’m of the opinion that an artificial intelligence(AI)is impossible, at least in the way that we as humans seem to imagine them in science fiction. It seems most people associate an AI with the Bicentennial Man or (since we’re referencing Star Trek) Data. Both of these AI are characterized by their desire to discover the meaning behind being human or simply their own free will.

Thinking of what a ‘real’ AI might be like however, it brings up the question of whether or not emotions are the product of sentience or if they’re merely a chemically constructed phenomena. Many of our own emotions are generated via our various neuro-transmitters (Dopamine, Serotonin, etc.) but an AI would lack these. The closest thing I personally (bias identified) could imagine a sentient program having to emotions would be some sort of central ‘goal’ around which it bases all of its other decisions. If this was the case then is it really slavery if the ‘goals’ we gave an AI coincide with our own needs as a species?

For my part I find the Watson matter more interesting on a social level. Not many people may remember this but IBM was also the company that developed Deep Blue, the computer that defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Both in the case of Deep Blue and now in the case of Watson we’re witnessing computers besting humans at fields that were previously thought to be the domain of humans(though admittedly in the case of Jeopardy this was largely due to the structure of the questions).

It makes a person wonder how necessary humans will actually be in the future. Even without AI, computers are evolving to be able to handle increasingly complex tasks. If this trend continues what happens when computers can replace not just manual laborers but also scholars and diplomats? A computer run lab for example (once taught proper procedures) could easily out perform its human equivalent (and likely for a much smaller cost).

Looking into the far future, I’ve always enjoyed the idea of the technological singularity. A point at which our technology becomes so advanced that we simply begin to integrate it into our physical bodies in favor of it over our (eventually) out dated biological processes. This obviously (assuming it is possible) is far down the line, but just look at how far our technology has advanced in roughly two centuries. Since the 1800s we’ve seen complex electrics, air travel, computers, the internet, and computer technology becomes outdated almost a month after it’s put on the market. Looking at the statistics of it all, this is an exciting time to be alive.

2. Nina Rosenstand - March 1, 2011

Interesting perspective, Andrew. Brand new op-ed piece in the NY Times yesterday: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/28/watson-still-cant-think/?smid=tw-nytimesopinion&seid=auto
I may do a blog about it.

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