The three-day event coincided with the airing of three episodes of the long-running game show “Jeopardy!” hosted by Alex Trebek that pitted two former champions (Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter) against Watson, an artificial intelligence software and supercomputer developed by IBM.
Watson won, which didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was the complexity behind the mechanizations. Despite its appearance on television, Watson is actually a room filled with 90 servers processing a complex network of hardware and software and combined information retrieval with language processing, reasoning, and other factors. If you’re interested in the specifics, IBM has an entire website devoted to it.
I was far more interested in the crowd reaction to the machine. Students and community members from in and around Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – some of whom participated in the development of Watson – packed the auditorium to what I estimate was at least ninety percent capacity. When the facade of the computer appeared, they roared in approval. Correct answers garnered enthusiastic applause while the machine’s wildly inaccurate guesses were met with laughter that ranged from slight titters to agonizingly forced guffaws. Members of the crowd buzzed with anticipation while some showed off t-shirts that read “I <3 Watson”.
The endearment shown towards the IBM project was understandable given the school’s technical focus, though no less distressing to someone like myself who has far more appreciation for things he can grasp and appreciate; things such as endurance, creativity, and feeling. To put it kindly a more arts-minded fellow, though it may be more accurate to say “a dunce.”
Still, I couldn’t help but not be as impressed by the machine’s performance given my limited understanding of its intricacies and infrastructure. I had to ask the person I accompanied to the event – former Times Union intern and local blogger Erin Morelli – if I was correct in my analysis that the machine was essentially the equivalent of a very effective Google search. I suspected, of course, that wasn’t the case, and it isn’t. Erin was kind enough to tell me as such without flooding me with details I couldn’t possibly wrap my head around.
Discussion occurred before the program, during commercial breaks, and after the event with a panel that included IBM representatives and RPI alumni Adam Lally and Dr. Chris Welty, as well as members of RPI’s faculty, including Cognitive Science Department Head Dr. Selmer Bringsjord. They fielded questions from the audience and spoke on the progress of artificial intelligence and its application in this instance.
Dr. Bringsjord in particular introduced some exciting and insightful talking points, which made me curious about his view of the project. Having already decided to devote this space to the event, I was going to find him after the event and pick his brain, but by 8:30pm I hadn’t yet eaten dinner and was reminded that the Times Union does not actually pay me for my efforts.
Another time, Dr. Bringsjord. You’ll be hearing from me soon.
The real story to me, though, was the reaction I mentioned earlier to the machine. Aspiring scientists and engineers in the crowd treated the contraption with an eagerness and endearment that, though sometimes masked through attempts at ironic humor, was clearly affection for the machine. It was all in fun and a good sign for those of us who recognize our country’s quiet crisis in the maths and sciences, but I still felt slightly disheartened that people were rooting for the inorganic to triumph over the human underdogs.
When I cheered for a Jennings response early in the evening, Erin leaned over and said “you’re going to be in the minority here tonight.”
“I know,” I sighed.
As the Double Jeopardy round reached its apex, Watson hit the second Daily Double. Former champion Ken Jennings, who at one point in the program had given the machine a run for its money and put a scare into the pro-Watson crowd, leaned against his podium with a smirk of bemused resignation. He knew that with the given category and two-day totals, he had been caught in a checkmate. There would be more questions in the round and Final Jeopardy, but nothing barring a wagering error in Final Jeopardy that the computer was literally incapable of making was going to change the outcome.
As I saw the sporting Jennings accept his fate, I was reminded of the American folk tale of John Henry. I looked at Jennings and imagined Henry, hammer in hand, competing against the steam-powered hammer that the railroad company designed to replace him.
In the case of artificial intelligence, we can take solace in the fact that there is no Watson to replace human ingenuity, creativity, and determination. As Dr. Bringsjord pointed out to the crowd that remained after the program, Watson is wholly incapable of actually creating thought. It is a series of processes that searches for an answer and can “learn” from its input and mistakes, but it cannot create a solution from original thought.
Based on my limited understanding of the subjects of artificial intelligence and human thought, that’s what makes ventures such as this an interesting conundrum. Human beings are trying to bridge a divide between a simulation of human problem solving and actual human thought, but with a limited understanding of exactly how, where, and why things like human thought and ingenuity are generated in the three pounds of hardware and software contained in our skulls. We are pushing machines like Watson to approach an endpoint, but don’t know where and what that endpoint is. Thankfully, this means the science fiction doomsday scenarios regarding artificial intelligence remain firmly rooted in the “fiction” and not so much in the “science.”
Still, there was a part of me that was disappointed when Watson’s two-day total was shown. It had completely trounced its human competition, with Jennings a distant second and Rutter an inconsequential third.
And as John Henry lay dead on the ground, this time defeated by the steam-powered hammer, the crowd roared with approval and heralded the coming of an exciting new age.
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