IBM’s new computing marvel, Watson, won the world Jeopardy championship, triumphing over the most accomplished human players. The long-term implications of programming to mirror human thought are breathtaking. The short-term implications: Watson won’t be a human substitute anytime soon.
A computer triumphs over the best human players in Jeopardy! Watson — the name given to the machine that won the Jeopardy championship — was programmed at the IBM Research Center, and optimized for the game of Jeopardy. The implications seems astounding: computer engineering appears to have reached a new level of sophistication where human thinking can be modeled into a machine, maybe even suggesting that the human mind is not all that unique or complicated. Some commentators trumpeted the growing insignificance of humanity — what if we programmed computers for creativity, entrepreneurship, art, music, even medicine. What if computers became the most productive inventors; what if a computer won the Nobel Prize in medicine or physics? Are such achievements possible, and is man diminishing in significance?
The achievements of computer programming and the pace at which it is advancing is impressive. In the 1950’s, a room of huge mainframe computers — referred to as “Big Iron” — was needed for just basic math and algebraic calculations. The costs was several millions of dollars for something that is achieved today as a mere feature on a device that might be given away free at a fast food restaurant. The notable achievements aside from merely calculating faster than humans were Deep Blue, which outplayed Gary Kasparov for the title of the best chess player in the world, and now Watson for the title of best Jeopardy player. Modeling game performance within defined rules seems now quite achievable, even with lateral thinking games such as Jeopardy, which relies in part on wordplay and reaction speed.
What’s next for our computer brothers? Will computers displace humans in more and more endeavors, especially if we combine the computing power with advances in robotics so that we will have programmable muscle to complement the programmable brains. These prospective advances are possible, and will result in our becoming more integrated with our computer and robotic brethren. Will we one day have “human” robots, like those written about in Isaac Asimov’s I Robot? Those robots had what Asimov called “positronic brains” that allowed the robots to think for themselves and have a form of consciousness. We are a long way from such achievements, but Watson is likely the first step because he was endowed with rules that allowed him to be human-like. He did not have consciousness or understanding; Watson was still an input-output machine, but he…or it…was an evolutionary step in more advanced computer programming where there was some elementary form of reasoning built into Watson’s logic. The next advance should be even more interesting.