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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. 🙂

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A Debate for the Ages December 23, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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At Crooked Timber they are debating the relative virtues of Captain Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard (for the uninitiated, they were Star Fleet commanders on, respectively, Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation, TV shows from a bygone era.)

This is not the most pressing of issues but the context is interesting.

At the National Review blog, conservative Mike Potemra wrote:

I have over the past couple of months been watching DVDs of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show I missed completely in its run of 1987 to 1994; and I confess myself amazed that so many conservatives are fond of it. Its messages are unabashedly liberal ones of the early post-Cold War era – peace, tolerance, due process, progress (as opposed to skepticism about human perfectibility).

The puzzle is that conservatives are not well-known for embracing peace, tolerance, due process,  and progress, so why would they embrace Picard? Potemra continues:

I asked an NR colleague about it, and he speculated that the show’s appeal for conservatives lay largely in the toughness of the main character: Jean-Luc Picard was a moral hardass where the Captain Kirk of the earlier show was more of an easygoing, cheerful swashbuckler. I think there’s something to that: Patrick Stewart did indeed create, in that character, a believable and compelling portrait of ethical uprightness.”

But as CT’s John Holbo points out, this won’t fly:

But surely the proper conclusion to be drawn, then, is that being an ethically upright and generally virtuous person is, however surprising this result may be, consistent with being tolerant, peace-loving, even with upholding due process. And there is no particular difficulty to the trick of being in favor of progress while being skeptical about human perfectibility. I say this is a semi-serious point because I think, for some conservatives, the main objection to a somewhat vaguely conceived set of liberal values really is a strong sense that they are inconsistent with a certain sort of hardassery in the virtue ethics department. End of story. But then Star Trek TNG ought, by rights, to be the ultimate anti-conservative series. At least for the likes of Potemra.

I think Picard’s attractions stem from his characteristic bit of dialogue. Whenever his subordinates came up with a good suggestion about how to handle an emergency, Picard would sternly and austerely command “make it so”. That commanding, stern austerity is enough to send shivers up any authoritarian spine.

Remember that George Bush famously referred to himself as the decider. And as journalist Ron Suskind famously reported, Bush flunkies were under the impression that ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

“Make it so” indeed.

It is that one phrase that has so enraptured conservatives.

One might think this an excessively simplistic explanation. But in this context that is a feature not a bug.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com