Last week I caught the third and final Jeopardy episode where IBM’s supercomputer “Watson” took on the best of the show’s best contestants – Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter – and pummeled them into bits and bytes.
Fun stuff, but also sobering. It left me with the same uneasy feeling I had after first hearing Johnny Cash sing years ago about rail-splitter John Henry racing the steam-driven, spike-driving machine — and losing.
I’ll always pull for the human over the humanoid.
Experts hailed Watson’s decisive win ($77,147 vs. a paltry $24,000 for Jennings and $21,600 for Rutter) as a technological breakthrough in the race between artificial intelligence and the real deal, and I suppose it was.
Even Jennings, the all-time Jeopardy champ with winnings into the millions, expressed his awe of Watson saying, “I for one welcome our new computer overlords.”
A humbling statement for Jennings and, in a larger vein, for the human race. Will we get to the point where computers can out-think us mere mortals? Will we arrive at a day when computers will not need humans to input data? Can they originate their own?
Could Watson invent a Watson? Pradeep Khosla, dean of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, says no; at least not yet. Dr. Khosla believes it is the human ability to create that separates us from computers, and that we are not in danger of losing that unique ability to a computer any time soon.
But others say the separation between man and machine exists on other levels, too.
More than creativity
In an article they wrote, Seth Borenstein and Jordan Robertson of the Associated Press note, “Experts in the field say it is more than the spark of creation that separates man from his mechanical spawn. It is the pride creators can take, the empathy we can all have with the winners and losers, and that magical mix of adrenaline, fear and ability that kicks in when our backs are against the wall and we are in survival mode.”
Time Magazine did an interesting cover story in its Feb. 21 edition. Called, “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal, writer Lev Grossman quoted experts in saying we are only a few decades from that point where computers will become more intelligent than humans.
35 years and counting
Grossman quotes author/inventor/futurist Raymond Kurzweil in particular, and writes this: “According to his calculations, the end of human civilization as we know it is about 35 years away. Computers are getting faster …Also, (they) are getting faster, faster …. There might conceivably come a moment when they are capable of something comparable to human intelligence. Artificial intelligence.”
And when they hit that point, there is no reason to suspect that will not stop getting even faster and continue growing in intelligence, the prediction goes.
Time adds another voice to this prophecy by quoting author Vernor Vinge who says, “Within 30 years, we will have the means to create superhman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”
It is just me, or is it hard to get excited over that?
These guys and others wrap this phenomenon up in a single word, and that word is – fittingly – Singularity. It means the moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.
Exciting or scary?
Again, unless you live your life in a computer lab, it seems hard to get excited about all this. Other words come to mind first. Words like depressed and maybe even fearful.
This dates me and sounds pretty low-tech by today’s standards, but anyone remember HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi classic, 2001? When the astronaut decides to take the arrogant
computer down a peg, HAL asks in his sinister voice, “Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave? I really think I’m entitled to an answer to that question. I don’t think I’ll let you do that, Dave.”
In the metaphysical realm, you also have some obvious differences between man and machine. A lot of differences, starting with the existence of the human soul.
Could a computer somehow generate that? I know some auto enthusiasts who could swear their prized car has a soul, but are we all on the same page in defining what that is? And is it possible for a metallic box held together with screws to develop any kind of entity approaching a soul?
HAL came close to evidencing a moral – amoral would be more accurate – side, but we’re talking movies here and we’re talking a 53-year-old one at that predicting what the future would look like 10 years ago. Oops. Got that one wrong.
As for Watson, the concept of progress is defined in different ways by different people. Both here and in the virtual unknown.