Political revolution is in the air and on the ground in many countries these last few weeks. But as future history looks backward, it may well remember this time less as a revolutionary crossroads and more as the start of a new era of intelligent computing.
Who’s behind this? Watson, that’s who.
Watson is IBM’s latest entry in the ongoing effort to demonstrate a broad range of computer-based abilities. Watson’s test? Compete in a game of Jeopardy. The contest was a modern day version of other human David vs. computer Goliath competitions, such as 1997’s chess game pitting IBM’s Big Blue against chess master Gary Kasparov. One significant difference in this game: Watson had to listen to the questions.
The science fiction parallels are numerous. Well-known computer personalities from SF literature such as HAL 9000 from Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Oddyssey, Dora from Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love, and The Oversoul from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and the companion series spring to mind. More recent works such as Robert J. Sawyer's WWW Trilogy Wake, Watch, and the upcoming finale, Wonder, further explore this theme. Be sure to catch Ann Wilkes' interview with Robert here on SFOO the first week of April, when Wonder will be released.
There is a whole cadre of science fiction film computer entities as well, including Master Control Program from Tron (1982), Collossus from Collossus: The Forbin Project (1970) and Joshua from War Games (1983). And of course there is Skynet from The Terminator fame. For a fairly thorough roster of computer beings in written and film science fiction, check out Wikipedia’s excellent "List of Fictional Computers".
What makes Watson noteworthy? The voice recognition feature is one big difference. But that is really just the beginning. The real smarts seem to be in Watson’s ability to make sense of the convoluted communications protocol that is the English language. Watson must listen to the stated facts just as the human players must do, and then tap into its database of known wisdom and issue a response in the form of a question. Of course, there is strategy involved, too, such as whether to guess or to simply not answer if the answer is not known. Watson apparently does not guess, at least not at this time. He also struggles with completing fill-in-the-blank questions. But that did not stop him from beating his human opponents.
It is worth noting that Watson is powered by Linux. The technology behind Watson’s abilities is both hardware and software, and is beyond the scope of this article. There are certainly dozens, if not hundreds of articles out there covering some of these details. Two of my favorites:
• Mark P. Mills’ article on Forbes online magazine: "IBM’s Watson Jeopardy Stunt Unleashes a Third Great Cycle in Computing"
• Wikipedia’s “Watson Artificial Intelligence” article
Whether you believe that this marks the beginning of the end for humanity or the dawn of a new era depends in part on your overall sense of optimism for the future and for technology’s role in that future. As a seasoned technology professional, I have my own opinion. But even that opinion is based not on my understanding of electronics or my comprehension of artificial intelligence algorithms. For me this is a more fundamental and mercenary issue: job security. If Watson’s progeny replace me in the office, I’ll know we’ve birthed Skynet.
But then maybe I really should be looking at this as opportunity.
Perhaps the future Watson Babies will need someone to blog for them and write new science fiction novels with more benign and sympathetic computer characters. This could even mark the beginning of a new genre … are we ready for A.I. Romance?
- D. E. Helbling