Machines first out-calculated
us in simple math. Then they replaced us on the assembly
lines, explored places we couldn’t get to, even beat our champions at chess. Now a computer called Watson has bested our best at “Jeopardy!”
A gigantic computer created
by IBM specifically to excel at answers-and-questions left two champs of the TV game show in its silicon dust after a three-day tournament, a feat that experts call a technological
breakthrough.
Watson earned $77,147, versus $24,000 for Ken Jennings
and $21,600 for Brad Rutter. Jennings took it in stride writing “I for one welcome
our new computer overlords”
alongside his correct Final Jeopardy answer.
The next step for the IBM machine and its programmers: taking its mastery of the arcane
and applying it to help doctors plow through blizzards of medical information. Watson could also help make Internet searches far more like a conversation
than the hit-or-miss things they are now.
Watson’s victory leads to the question: What can we measly humans
do that amazing machines cannot do or will never do?
The answer, like all of “Jeopardy!,”
comes in the form of a question: Who — not what — dreamed up Watson? While computers can calculate and construct, they cannot decide to create. So far, only humans can.
“The way to think about this is: Can Watson decide to create Watson?” said Pradeep Khosla, dean of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University
in Pittsburgh. “We are far from there. Our ability to create
is what allows us to discover
and create new knowledge
and technology.”
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.
What humans have that Watson, IBM’s earlier chess champion Deep Blue, and all their electronic predecessors and software successors do not have and will not get is the sort of thing that makes song, romance, smiles, sadness and all that jazz. It’s something the experts in computers, robotics
and artificial intelligence know very well because they can’t figure out how it works in people, much less duplicate it. It’s that indescribable essence
of humanity.
Nevertheless, Watson, which took 25 IBM scientists four years to create, is more than just a trivia whiz, some experts say.
Richard Doherty, a computer industry expert and research director at the Envisioneering Group in Seaford, N.Y., said he has been studying artificial intelligence for decades. He thinks IBM’s advances with Watson are changing the way people think about artificial intelligence
and how a computer can be programmed to give conversational answers — not merely lists of sometimes not-germane entries.
“This is the most significant breakthrough of this century,” he said. “I know the phones are ringing off the hook with interest in Watson systems. The Internet may trump Watson,
but for this century, it’s the most significant advance in computing.”
And yet Watson’s creators say this breakthrough gives them an extra appreciation for the magnificent machines we call people.
“I see human intelligence consuming machine intelligence,
not the other way around,” David Ferrucci, IBM’s lead researcher on Watson, said in an interview Wednesday.
“Humans are a different sort of intelligence. Our intelligence
is so interconnected. The brain is so incredibly interconnected
with itself, so interconnected
with all the cells in our body, and has co-evolved with language and society and everything
around it.”
“Humans are learning machines
that live and experience the world and take in an enormous
amount of information — what they see, what they taste, what they feel, and they’re taking
that in from the day they’re born until the day they die,” he said. “And they’re learning from all the input all the time. We’ve never even created something that attempts to do that.”
The ability of a machine to learn is the essence of the field of artificial intelligence. And there have been great advances
in the field, but nothing
near human thinking.
“I’ve been in this field for 25 years and no matter what advances
we make, it’s not like we feel we’re getting to the finish
line,” said Carnegie Mellon University professor Eric Nyberg,
who has worked on Watson
with its IBM creators since 2007. “There’s always more you can do to bring computers to human
intelligence. I’m not sure we’ll ever really get there.”