There's something just a little too creepy for my taste about a computer as smart as Watson, the new electronic genius which made its debut on the TV quiz show Jeopardy recently.
Watson, named after IBM's founder, was developed over the course of several years by IBM and another company with the onerous name of Nuance Communications, Inc. On Jeopardy it was able to defeat two champions of the game hands down, firing off 24 of 30 correct answers faster than either human being could. According to computer geeks who understand this stuff, "its huge software powers enable it to do hundreds of simultaneous algorithmic calculations, which help the machine parse human speech patterns, check them against its vast database of knowledge, and provide a most likely answer and a confidence level for that answer."
If you're anything like me, you don't have a clue what terms like "algorithmic calculations" actually mean. You just intuit that Watson can do a whole lot of stuff in its non-human head (remember, it does not have a brain) a lot faster and more accurately than we can. Its capacity to do that is pretty awesome, but it's pretty scary too.
Notice that I used the word "intuit" in that last paragraph. Well, here's the thing: Watson can't intuit. S/he can't pick up on nuance or the subtleties of humor or the idiosyncrasies of individual personalities. Watson can only get answers to specific questions right. That is useful and may prove to be an important tool for the practice of medicine or law, as some predict. But what does it offer the human species as we continue to move away from face-to-face interactions that require courtesy, patience, diplomacy, or kindness? Isn't there something slightly ominous about the idea of smart, fast machines that lack feelings being used to streamline".what? What do such high-tech offerings auger for issues like privacy --or invasions thereof for purposes of "national security"? We've already heard nightmare stories of how computers can wreak havoc in our lives. Remember the one about the woman who couldn't get her social security checks because according to the computer she was dead? And that computer wasn't half as smart as Watson! Remember, too, that Watson's friends are already being used to lob "smart bombs" -- occasionally hitting people who did nothing wrong except to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
When I first heard about Watson all I could think of was Wilson. You may recall that he was Tom Hanks's best friend while Hanks was marooned on an island for seven years in the movie "Castaway". But Wilson was, in fact, nothing more than a volleyball that Hanks painted a crude face on and talked to incessantly to keep himself sane. The limbless, heartless, brain-less Wilson could not talk back, smile, hug Hanks, or find a way to get him off the island. It's true, he did keep Hanks going, but after the first three or four years, my bet is Wilson proved to be a pretty disappointing companion.
That's kind of how I feel about Watson. There may be a role for Wilsons and Watsons and I value whatever contributions they make, but at the end of the day, can they really take the place of human empathy and imagination? And more importantly, what are we risking given their potential for abuse?
In launching Watson, IBM said "the goal is to have computers start to interact in natural human terms across a range of applications and processes, understanding the questions that humans ask and providing answers that humans can understand and justify." Just typing those words has my blood pressure up. How can a machine "interact in natural human terms"? That's the ultimate oxymoron! And "providing answers that humans can"justify"? Yikes!
When it comes right down to it, I'll take Wilson any day. He was harmless and possibly lifesaving. As for Watson, well in my view, it's elementary: Watson is a pretty scary fellow and I, for one, would rather not cross paths with him.