The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Whistling through the Graveyard

Who ever thought that a game show would be a harbinger for cataclysmic change? We’re witnessing it this week as “Watson”—IBM’s first generation semantic information processor (a.k.a. artificial intelligence)—goes up against past human champions on the quiz show Jeopardy. So far, Watson is holding it’s own, but at the end of the day, the winner really doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that Watson is one noteworthy step in a long line of hardware and software achievements that will lead to strong A.I. and ultimately, what Ray Kurzweil calls—“The Singularity.” A quick description is in order:
The Singularity is the technological creation of smarter-than-human intelligence. There are several technologies that are often mentioned as heading in this direction. The most commonly mentioned is probably Artificial Intelligence, but there are others: direct brain-computer interfaces, biological augmentation of the brain, genetic engineering, ultra-high-resolution scans of the brain followed by computer emulation. Some of these technologies seem likely to arrive much earlier than the others, but there are nonetheless several independent technologies all heading in the direction of the Singularity – several different technologies which, if they reached a threshold level of sophistication, would enable the creation of smarter-than-human intelligence.

A future that contains smarter-than-human minds is genuinely different in a way that goes beyond the usual visions of a future filled with bigger and better gadgets. Vernor Vinge originally coined the term "Singularity" in observing that, just as our model of physics breaks down when it tries to model the singularity at the center of a black hole, our model of the world breaks down when it tries to model a future that contains entities smarter than human.

As Watson demonstrates, we are approaching the knee of the technology evolution curve, where change occurs exponentially, rather than linearly. Because humans are conditioned to observe the word in a linear way, we look at the rapid fire advances in computing and shake our heads in amazement.

And yet, because we are linear beings, we have trouble extrapolating into the near term future and understanding that exponential technology improvements will lead to profound, disruptive, and yes, even dangerous changes in what it means to be human.

That’s why Stephen Baker writes:
It's all too easy to see Watson do its thing and conclude that legions of such machines will soon relieve us of our brainwork and our jobs, if not our souls. In fact, machines like Watson will no doubt displace people who are paid to answer questions, probably starting with telephone call centers.

But humans will adjust, as we always have. When our inventions, from tractors and cotton gins to spell-checking software, take over certain chores, we move to niches beyond the range of these tools. And believe me, after watching Watson in action for a year, I can assure you that there's plenty of room in the work world for the still-peerless human mind.

You see, Watson isn't nearly as smart as it looks on TV. Outside of its specialty of answering questions, the computer remains largely clueless. It knows nothing. When it comes up with an answer, such as "What is 'Othello?,'" the name of Shakespeare's play is simply the combination of ones and zeros that correlates with millions of calculations it has carried out. Statistics tell it that there is a high probability that the word "Othello" matches with a "tragedy," a "captain" and a "Moor." But Watson doesn't understand the meaning of those words any more than Google does, or, for that matter, a parrot raised in a household of Elizabethan scholars.

Watson is incapable of coming up with fresh ideas, much less creating theories, cracking jokes, telling a story or carrying on a conversation. Its ability is simply to make sense of questions and then scour a trove of data for the most likely answers. It represents a dramatic advance in artificial intelligence, but like another famous IBM computer, Deep Blue, Watson excels on a limited playing field, in a game defined by clear, rigid rules.

Baker is whistling through the graveyard, mouthing all of the clichés that are a consequence of a linear view of technology and the world. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that our brains are biochemical “computers” that store information, establish complex relationships between information elements, receive inputs, and provide outputs.

Baker is correct when he states that Watson “is incapable of coming up with fresh ideas, much less creating theories, cracking jokes, telling a story or carrying on a conversation.” For now. But computing technology is improving exponentially, not linearly, and by the mid-point of this century, it is highly probable that strong A.I. will exist. That means an intelligence that is fully capable of “coming up with fresh ideas, much less creating theories, cracking jokes, telling a story or carrying on a conversation.”

And then … what? What happens as exponential improvement continues and the intelligence that is equal to ours becomes far, far superior to ours? Not in centuries, but in years. How do we evolve? Those are the questions that are yet unanswerable, but they’re coming … soon.