Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, February 18, 2011

Watson reax from an AI researcher, Ken Jennings, and others

I’d like to point our readers to a couple articles of note about IBM’s Watson and its Jeopardy! win.

First, transhumanist and AI researcher Ben Goertzel, writing at, of all places, KurzweilAI.net, seems to agree with my overall assessment of the significance of Watson:
Ray Kurzweil has written glowingly of Watson as an important technology milestone

Indeed no human can do what a search engine does, but computers have still not shown an ability to deal with the subtlety and complexity of language. Humans, on the other hand, have been unique in our ability to think in a hierarchical fashion, to understand the elaborate nested structures in language, to put symbols together to form an idea, and then to use a symbol for that idea in yet another such structure. This is what sets humans apart.

That is, until now. Watson is a stunning example of the growing ability of computers to successfully invade this supposedly unique attribute of human intelligence.

I understand where Kurzweil is coming from, but nevertheless, this is a fair bit stronger statement than I’d make. As an AI researcher myself I’m quite aware of the all subtlety that goes into “thinking in a hierarchical fashion,” “forming ideas,” and so forth. What Watson does is simply to match question text against large masses of possible answer text — and this is very different than what an AI system will need to do to display human-level general intelligence. Human intelligence has to do with the synergetic combination of many things, including linguistic intelligence but also formal non-linguistic abstraction, non-linguistic learning of habits and procedures, visual and other sensory imagination, creativity of new ideas only indirectly related to anything heard or read before, etc. An architecture like Watson barely scratches the surface!
Next, the most witty and astute piece I’ve read on Watson comes from Ken Jennings himself. It turns out that the grace and good humor (in both senses of the word) Jennings displayed on Jeopardy! wasn’t a fluke:
Indeed, playing against Watson turned out to be a lot like any other Jeopardy! game, though out of the corner of my eye I could see that the middle player had a plasma screen for a face. Watson has lots in common with a top-ranked human Jeopardy! player: It's very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman.
Jennings’s short article is well worth your time to read, as is his equally funny and insightful Q&A session at the Washington Post.

Finally, don’t miss Hijinks Ensue’s comic and Slate’s hilarious video about Watson. Part of the latter is factual, but the premise is about Watson’s quest trying to “make it” on other game shows, such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, The Newlywed Game, and Survivor. Good stuff (though a warning that both have PG-13 elements).

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