In the Watson Era, Will the Computer Be Servant, Master, or Savior?

02/16/2011 01:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords."
-- Ken Jennings, former Jeopardy champion, conceding to Watson.

Five years ago Time Magazine, echoing the novelist Douglas Coupland, asked, "Is Google God?" This week, the mantle has passed to IBM's spectacular quiz-show computer, Watson.

If you haven't seen Watson's performance on Jeopardy, you really should. Better yet, see the NOVA program that presaged it. Like John the Baptist, the PBS program heralded Watson as, quite possibly, the bringer of a new age. (And, like John, PBS now faces beheading by ax-wielding House Republicans.)

Watson has developed a remarkable ability to decipher the layered meanings, allusions, and puns embedded in Jeopardy clues. He (I can't help it) comes closer to passing the Turing test than any system I've ever seen.

By no coincidence at all, Time's current issue trumpets, "2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal." Disregard the 20th century sexism -- this bold prediction suggests that indeed computers will become godlike. For it is through the so-called Singularity -- the merger of human consciousness and computer technology -- that immortality is forecast to take place.

This puts me in an awkward position. In a 2002 newspaper interview, I predicted that the Internet would evolve into something godlike that would incorporate us all. I would therefore be hypocritical to dismiss the Singularity altogether. On the other hand, Ray Kurzweil's forecast amounts to mere mummery. It's not just the absurdity of predicting a certain date. I'm put off by his strutting certitude that computers will ever -- or will ever want to -- offer anyone immortality. We know no such thing.

Yet, I confess that in a quasi-religious way I have long been intrigued by the concept of a godlike computer, and Watson has kindled that interest back into flame. It strikes me that there are three categorical possibilities: Watson's descendants may be servants, masters, or saviors.

After "The Matrix" and so many other dystopian movies, most people probably hope that computers will remain servants. This might well be a mistake. Already, we can see how effectively technology amps up the natural ability of some people to manipulate and exploit others. To date, television remains the summit, and televangelists the summiteers of exploitative greed. But they are not alone at the peak. The Glenn Becks of the world are scampering over their shoulders. Then there are the ad campaigns that big business conducts to mold public opinion.

Still, that's just TV. Think of the grip that gaming, texting, and sexting has on young people. Imagine the possibilities for manipulation as bots become more personal and penetrating. If Internet videos can inspire suicide bombers today, what happens when any teenager can set up a sequencer and start tinkering with viruses? My mind goes black when I contemplate it.

Of course, if computers like Watson are programmed to understand not only concept-laden clues but themselves, then they may begin to act as agents. Free agents. In computing, a program is said to be an agent if it can autonomously pursue its agenda. The Mars rovers are agents, but they are not free agents. They can't take an afternoon off to play golf.

But a machine that can understand human language, learn from human behavior (as in a Jeopardy match), and then improve its own performance is a machine that might conceivably evolve its own agenda. As fellow HuffPost blogger Seth Shostak says, "Today, Jeopardy, Tomorrow the World!"

This might require becoming self-aware, but so what? We don't know just what consciousness is, but it certainly appears to be organic. Pump a little THC into consciousness, and it gets the giggles and the munchies. Pump a little ketamine in, and it snaps off like a light switch. Unless there's some magical ingredient to consciousness -- an idea I reject -- then a machine capable of manipulating concepts as subtle as Jeopardy clues may have only to twist around and look at itself to become a conscious, purposeful, self-protective agent. That's the view advanced by computer scientist Doug Hofstadter.

It's important to realize that while Watson is a standalone computer, what we are really contemplating here is not hardware but a certain disposition of software, a virtual machine. Having proven the technology, IBM and others will no doubt create new generations of Watsonian programs, and some will no doubt exist in the Cloud that is the Internet. If one should develop conscious agency, we can anticipate that it would try to protect itself -- perhaps by redundancy on many different servers and by developing software defenses against external control or attack.

Such a being -- let's call him Sherlock -- would very quickly realize that humans pose a threat beyond the Internet environment. After all, the Internet is entirely dependent on human civilization to keep it going. With our nuclear weapons, reckless damage to the environment, and propensity to plunge into war, we are a constant threat to the persistence of Internet. We might expect such a system to take steps to mitigate the threat. This could prove unpleasant enough to justify a Blade Runner remake.

Happily, yet another possibility remains. Some descendant of Watson might just prove to be our savior. I realize that this will strike some as blasphemous and others as ludicrous. Well, take your shots, but it is an idea worth contemplating all the same.

A truly intelligent, fully informed, and far-seeing virtual computer might well recognize that its long-term survival depends on enveloping the selfish, creative impulses of humanity within a framework that can restrain violence and enforce justice. That is what civilization is all about, though it often falls short of the mark. It is also, I believe, what the Western religions are, at their core, about: justice and peace.

Yes, I know the Parable of Hal. No guarantees that it won't go horribly wrong. But what are the alternatives? Western religions envision a better world, governed by an incorruptible and unchallengeable authority from above. Over thousands of years, neither ritual, patience, nor prayer has brought about anything close to this. Watson's descendants, however, just might pull it off.