Feature

Watson: The first ‘intelligent’ machine?

Next week, a cutting-edge IBM computer, christened Watson, will compete with two champion contestants on the quiz show Jeopardy!

When we “look back from a ravaged future on the war between man and machine,” said Tom Lamont in the London Observer, we may see this as the time the computer began its domination of the human race. Next week, a cutting-edge IBM computer, christened Watson, will compete with two champion contestants on the quiz show Jeopardy! It could be a landmark moment in the evolution of artificial intelligence. Computers have been beating grandmasters at chess for decades, said Richard Powers in The New York Times, but Jeopardy!, for a machine, is more challenging. Decoding the show’s corny, convoluted clues requires a grasp of language, context, and nuance that only people have possessed so far. But Watson’s designers fed a massively powerful new computer—whose 2,500 parallel processors fill an entire room—with several libraries’ worth of books and Internet entries, all to create an intelligence as well-informed and supple as the smartest human’s. In the best Jeopardy! tradition, Watson is asking an intriguing question—namely, “What is a human being?”

Oh, let’s not get carried away, said Wesley Smith in FirstThings.com. How can anyone seriously assert that Watson’s ability to solve goofy word puzzles calls into question the specialness of humanity? Like all computers—indeed, like the talking GPS device in my car—Watson is an insentient tool designed by humans to perform a specific task. That is very different from being a person, with emotions and a soul. Let’s not forget, said Edward Tenner in The​Atlantic.com, that it was human programmers who came up with the brilliant algorithms that allow Watson to play Jeopardy!, “not Watson itself.”

Like it or not, it’s inevitable that artificial intelligence will evolve beyond its creators, said futurist Ray Kurzweil in PC Magazine. When IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov back in 1997, believers in human exceptionalism pooh-poohed the achievement as mere number-crunching, and insisted that it was language that defined our essential humanity. Now that Watson has mastered language, presumably we’ll move the goalposts again and designate some other mental attribute—creativity, perhaps, or self-awareness—as the one that separates us from machines. The truth is that in 20 years, computers’ abilities will essentially be indistinguishable from humans’. In the not-distant future, we will stop seeing humanity and computers as separate, and “vastly extend and expand” our human capabilities by “merging with these tools of our own creation.”

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