February 17, 2011

Fear Not: Watson is NOT Skynet

Yes, Regis. That is my final answer...

After watching Watson, a computer, defeat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the amount of alarm that I've seen on the internet is mind-boggling. Some people see this as the first step down a path where robots will rule the world and humans will be turned into nothing more than "pets" to their new overlords.  

Certainly, you have to be impressed with the team that created Watson. As someone who got his first computer back when you had to program in BASIC and creating dot-matrix line-art was considered "advanced," it's stunning to see how far we've come... but if anyone is surprised that Watson won, I'm not sure why. 

When I want to perform large amounts of calculations on a table of data, I could do it by hand. I could use a calculator. More practically, I type the numbers into Excel and then create a function so my computer can do it for me. If I then want it to find certain entries that meet certain criteria, it can do that far faster than I could searching line-by-line. 

Watson, come here... I want you.

In essence, that's all Watson is. A vast amount of information has been entered into the machine, and it answers questions about that information -- and given the fact that Ken and Brad were able to buzz in faster than Watson on several occasions, it's clear that Watson isn't all that more efficient than humans at doing this incredibly specific task. 

Certainly, I'm not trying to downplay the marvelous advances in programming that Team Watson have accomplished here, but I'm also not losing any sleep that we're suddenly going to be obsolete. Eventually, the internet -- with access to enough data to make Solomon blush -- may well become self-aware. (Robert J. Sawyer has written a terrific series of novels based on that very premise.) 

I'm not so sure that would mean the end of the world, but hey, if it does -- we've got nobody to blame but ourselves and how we react to that development. After all, there's "no fate but what we make." That doesn't mean controlling our machines, but rather controlling ourselves. 

1 comment:

  1. If the internet ever does become self-aware, it will probably have to think about porn all day.