As we continue our focus on new technologies this week, it’s hard to overlook IBM’s Watson, the supercomputer that stepped into the spotlight last week when it (or he?) defeated two of Jeopardy’s all-time winners (Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter) in a three-day battle.
Not surprisingly, Watson’s feat has stirred up a storm of emotions and strong opinions – while many people seem to be excited about the possibilities, others are still unimpressed or skeptical, or even terrified by false implications that machines are taking over (a la Skynet).
While having Watson compete on Jeopardy did serve as a great way to demonstrate his ability to comprehend natural human speech and word play, quickly search for and retrieve information, and make correct decisions based on confidence levels, the participation of a machine on a traditionally very human game show does make the whole thing a little creepy. By giving a supercomputer a name such as “Watson,” an almost-human voice, and an avatar that constantly changes in a way analogous to human body language, IBM has forced us to pit man vs. machine. In reality, shouldn’t we be thinking man plus machine?
Maybe this was his way of coming to terms with competing with a computer, but Brad Rutter seems to have the right mentality. According to ABC News, Rutter’s view was that “Ken and I are representing humanity in this thing but, at the same time, Watson was developed, built, programmed by human beings. So I think humanity wins no matter what happens.”
Jennings takes a slightly different approach, according to the Washington Post: “Even when machines are doing more of our thinking and remembering for us, it’ll be more useful to have the wealth of information,” he said. “To make informed decisions about anything in life, you need to have knowledge. If you need a Google search, you’re still at a disadvantage.”
Although I think that Jennings may just have been a little bitter (he also expressed concern at having his “one real talent” stolen away by a machine), his comment makes some good sense. I remember reading an article a few months ago about the dangers of externalizing knowledge, and how it’s becoming easier and easier to acquire knowledge these days, but at the expense of insight. Might be something to think about.
My hope for Watson is that his “skills” are kept in the correct context. Arguments such as “he has an advantage because he can buzz in faster” are really absurd, considering that the point is not the fact that Watson won on Jeopardy – it’s the fact that he could compete at a human level at all. (I definitely missed this point at first – thanks to Alan Maas for that insight, among others!)
Let’s just think of this as an exhibition match for Watson and move on – I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do in real applications, such as medicine, for example. Jeopardy’s fun and all, but I think I’d rather watch humans compete – the thought of three spinning avatars wagering $1,246 on daily doubles is just weird.
And speaking of trivia, did you know that Sherlock Holmes never actually says “Elementary, my dear Watson” in Arthur Conan Doyle’s books?
– Minna Krejci