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Watson Is No Match for Humanity

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IBM WATSON
AP

The Watson craze last week didn't fully hit me until my cab driver got lost and cheerily exclaimed in thickly-accented English, "Watson! Heeeeelp me!" I find it interesting how the so-called "artificial intelligence" (AI) systems I studied decades ago at MIT are on their way to becoming the Fonzies (Watson can tell you who that is) of our times. There are a few misconceptions about our "new overlord" that I attempted to clarify within the confines of my taxi ride lost in a suburb of DC. Here they are:

1/ The computer is smart as us, and dumb as us. When Watson slipped up with the Oreo/crossword puzzle answer of "19-teens" it was our fault for not teaching Watson what that means. And if you do a Web search for "19-teens" it's brutally clear that the invention of "Oreos" or other innocent games doesn't come first to mind in the darkness of the online world.

2/ The computer never makes mistakes -- or the same mistake over and over -- unless we let it do so. If left alone, like the proverbial broken record, a computer will do the exact same thing it has always done. There is a construct in computer programming called "the infinite loop" which enables a computer to do what no other physical machine can do -- to operate in perpetuity without tiring. In the same way it doesn't know exhaustion, it doesn't know when it's wrong and it can keep doing the wrong thing over and over without tiring.

3/ The computer still needs us to make the right decision. That little exercise you do countless times with the computer on a daily basis of clicking "Yes," "No," or "Cancel" is the important moment when you are able to prevent the computer from doing harm to you or to itself. Were it to decide to, say, show up on Jeopardy unannounced and without asking, that's a completely different story for Watson 5.0 -- a world where Watson can click its own Yes/No/Cancel buttons.

4/ The computer doesn't care -- at best it can act like it cares. In the movie WALL-E we see a trash collector robot that breaks out of its daily routine and discovers consciousness through love. Given that we humans still don't understand how love works (and doesn't work), it's impossible to imagine that we could ever program a computer to truly love the way that we do -- and yes -- in that special case we can't seem to press our own Yes/No/Cancel buttons.

The taxi driver seemed to nod in disinterest until he asked me, "So, where is this place you're looking for?" I solved the problem by pulling out my iPhone and asking my "other overlord", Google, how to get there. S/he delivered the right answer.

PS I suggested the cab driver visit one of the many sites running the original software systems "Eliza" from the 60s, and to tell Eliza, "The first modern crossword is published and Oreo cookies are introduced." When I tried that just now Eliza simply responded, "I see."

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