Friday, February 18, 2011

Watson's Amazing Victory

Ken Jennings has written a wonderful piece for Slate about his experience playing against (and losing to) IBM's Jeopardy-playing supercomputer Watson.
But there's no shame in losing to silicon, I thought to myself as I greeted the (suddenly friendlier) team of IBM engineers after the match. After all, I don't have 2,880 processor cores and 15 terabytes of reference works at my disposal—nor can I buzz in with perfect timing whenever I know an answer. My puny human brain, just a few bucks worth of water, salts, and proteins, hung in there just fine against a jillion-dollar supercomputer.
I remember writing about Deep Blue and what its victory against Chess Grand Master Garry Kasparov meant for AI, and Watson is exponentially more impressive than Deep Blue. Kasparov wouldn't last five minutes against Ken Jennings. The skill set and programming necessary to master Jeopardy is far more subtle and complex and that required to master Chess, at least from a pure computer AI perspective.

The Singularity is Not Near
Impressive as it is, I still balk at the notion that this is the first step towards The Singularity, for the simple reason that I believe The Singularity is the greatest farrago of nonsense since the Population Bomb. Time Magazine recently ran a long, hilarious piece on The Singularity. I laughed all the way until the end, and then I realized that it wasn't satire, thus reminding me yet again that Time isn't so much a news magazine as it is a source of absurd trend-chasing and juvenile credulity wrapped in a squishy coating of bias.

Let me state this as clearly as possible: The Singularity--the moment at which computers essentially become sentient--is the greatest load of BS to come down the pike in many generations. That intelligent people believe it's All Really True! doesn't make it so. Aristotle, the most intelligent man of his age or almost any other, was certain that the blood cooled the brain and the liver was the true seat of human life. At one point, all the brightest minds in the world were utterly convinced in the truth of geocentricism. In our own day, powerful interests continue to flog the big lie of anthropogenic global warming. 

So, I don't care one bit that some of "the best and brightest" have signed on to Ray Kurzweil's loony idea that one day (in the next 40 years!) we will reverse engineer the human brain, dump our entire consciousness into a computer, and live forever. It is more likely that I could swallow my own torso than it is for a machine to replicate the human brain. I am not saying "maybe," or "perhaps eventually," or "given the right scientific developments": I am saying never, ever, ever: not in 40 years, not in a 1000.

This is all just part of the progressive's favorite delusion: that of the continued upward development of humanity, hand in hand with glorious technical achievement. This is utilitarian nonsense. First off, it's a failure to understand the practical reality of Moore's Law. The number of transistors on an integrated circuit may in fact keep doubling every two years until infinity (although I highly doubt it, and there is already some evidence that this will eventually peak and then decline), but that does not correlate to a matched increase in processing speeds. 

Second, it ignores the immense complexity of the human brain, and just how much of its function remains poorly understood if not downright inexplicable. Even the common process of medicating for mental illness remains a matter of trial and error because we simply don't know how the brain does much of what it does. The notion that the myriad complexities of the human psyche can be wholly reproduced if we just have enough processing power is madness.

Finally, there is the part many scientists leave out due to their own personal bias. I hate to break it to the atheists out there, but the human soul exists. We are not merely clever meat. We are simultaneously physical and metaphysical beings. The notion that we are the product of random chance, originating from nothing and returning to nothing, isn't even good nonsense. Ex nihilo nihil fit. The rational soul is transcendent, and will forever remain a mystery beyond the ability of science to grasp.

The Simulated Brain
Without question, we will see continued progress in artificial intelligence. Watson impresses not because of its 15 terabyte store of knowledge, but because of its ability to parse the English language, including puns, word play, allusions, and other very human subtleties of speech. Its knowledge set did not impress me: that's simply raw processing muscle. It's language ability, however, is frankly amazing. 

Yet with all that, IBM couldn't create a truly human voice. Watson won Jeopardy, but he still would have failed the Turing test. No one listening to its answers would be in doubt that they were hearing a computer. Watson is the Deep Blue of this generation, and as such is a fascinating and important milestone in the development of artificial intelligence. Where it will lead, I have no idea. Deep Blue was dismembered and mothballed, with a chunk of it ultimately winding up in the Smithsonian. 

And it's important--vitally important--to remember one thing. Watson did not create itself. It was created by a team of brilliant and dedicated people, pouring human knowledge into its brain and teaching it to think and learn in human ways. A machine can only be a simulation of the human brain, and no machine will ever be anything more than that. It will forever remain a mere shadow of the real thing.


Accordeonaire said...

Amazing. I agree with EVERY SUBSTANTIVE POINT and still feel slammed (mildly) by the gratuitous "progressive" jab. I don't remember seeing AI as a major point in any recent memos from the Brotherhood, and no one brings it up at the meetings. Even "The Scientists" don't seem to say what you say "they" say. Some do, but others don't either because they have their own religious beliefs about it (the soul) or because they think complexity theory precludes the idea that human thought is simply the sum of a huge quantity of sums.

Thomas L. McDonald said...

Correct my if I'm wrong here, but is a belief in the potential perfectiblity of society--or least the continued upward progress of society through the guiding hand of wise legislation--implicit in progressivism? Isn't that kind of the point?

And I'm NOT saying "The Scientists" say anything, since nothing--certainly not science--is that monolithic. Many, many scientists also believe "the singularity" is bunkum, and for good sciency reasons. Even though I use the word "scientists" generically, I don't mean to use it universally.

Anonymous said...

I would like AI (if that's the correct field) to progress to the point that Google Language Tools can translate the posts of my non-English-speaking FB friends and produce something that I can actually comprehend.

Thomas L. McDonald said...

I think it's certainly heading that way. Watson essentially was able to process algorithms akin to Google Language and countless other language tools simultaneously and rapidly, compare them, weigh them, and create an computer-comprehensible "translation" almost instantly. It just took massive amounts of processing power to do it.

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