February 16, 2011

And Along Came Watson

I, like a lot of other people, have been a very interested bystander in Jeopardy this week and for good reason. For those of you who haven't been watching, an AI named Watson has been playing agianst the two most successful Jeopardy contestants to ever compete on the game. 

The name 'Watson' refers to, "A cluster of ninety IBM Power 750 servers (plus additional I/O, network and cluster controller nodes in 10 racks) with a total of 2880 POWER7 processor cores and 16 Terabytes of RAM." and has already been the subject of a Nova documentary entitled Smartest Machine on Earth.

The documentary did a great job at highlighting the problems that the questions on Jeopardy pose to a computer, it really should be mandatory viewing for people with no background on the subject to gain an understanding of the significance of what is going on. They are not simply just asking a question, the question is disguised in riddles, puns, slang, and elements of humor. To be able to solve these questions Watson has to have a grasp of human language and also form an understanding of the importance of different terms. 

So how did Watson do? So well that I didn't have to wait until the final episode aired to write this post. Watson was tied for the lead at 5000 with Brad Rutter after the first round, but the next episode when double jeopardy took place was a different story. Watson answered nearly every question correctly, including both daily doubles  and ended the game with $35,734 compared to Jennings's 4,800 and Rutter's 10,400.  

Watson was an overwhelming success and his/her/it's/whatever you want to refer to Watson as, margin of victory was so great that it almost totally rules out it being a fluke. A computer is now the best Jeopardy contestant to ever play the game.

Now the question comes up to how the task of playing Jeopardy compares to that of a Turing Test, which is something a little different but more challenging. Watson has been designed to be as smart as possible and to pick out the right answer to any trivia question someone can think of, even if that question is shrouded in humor, or the other things previously mentioned. It would work well in a hospital diagnosing illnesses, and tasks that require sifting through a vast amount of information for a specific answer and who wouldn't want a Watson on there phone to answer a nagging question. The Turing test would be a lot different though a computer would not only have the common knowledge that people have, but be able to relate to peoples emotions on a personal level, to understand humor as more than language, and to even make human errors. 

Watching Jeopardy and writing about it brought up the question of 'What does Ray Kurzweil think about Watson and especially it's implications to the Turing Test?' Luckily for me and anyone who had their mind wandering in the same direction Ray has already written an article entitled the, "The Significance of Watson'. He actually wrote it before the episodes aired, because he knew that even if Watson didn't win and even looked bad, that it would only be a matter of time before they would be better than their human opponents. 

I'll summarize and pick out the most important things from the article he wrote. 

First he explains one aspect of human intelligence,

"Indeed no human can do what a search engine does, but computers have still not shown an ability to deal with the subtlety and complexity of language. Humans, on the other hand, have been unique in our ability to think in a hierarchical fashion, to understand the elaborate nested structures in language, to put symbols together to form an idea, and then to use a symbol for that idea in yet another such structure. This is what sets humans apart.That is, until now."

Then he makes an estimate on how long it will take for each of us to have a Watson at home.

"Computer price-performance is now doubling in less than a year, so 90 servers would become the equivalent of one in about seven years. Since a server is more expensive than a typical personal computer, we could consider the gap to be about ten years."

Then Ray gets to whats really important to him, the future of computers and a computer  taking the Turing Test.

"Mitch Kapor and I bet $20,000 ($10,000 each), with the proceeds to go to the charity of the winner’s choice, whether a computer would pass a Turing test by 2029. I said yes and he said no."


"What does this achievement with “Jeopardy!” tell us about the prospect of computers passing the Turing test? It certainly demonstrates the rapid progress being made on human language understanding. There are many other examples, such as CMU’s Read the Web project, which has created NELL (Never Ending Language Learner), which is currently reading documents on the Web and accurately understanding most of them."

Well I'd say, he is well on his way to winning some money for the charity of his choice because Watson is well ahead of what I expected for language recognition and would only need to expand his programing to understand more formally uniquely human things.

What is funny though is that for a computer to be human Ray realizes that it will have to dumb down what it knows, 

"It is important to note that an important part of the engineering of a system that will pass a proper Turing test is that it will need to dumb itself down. In a movie I wrote and co-directed, The Singularity is Near, A True Story about the Future, an AI named Ramona needs to pass a Turing test, and indeed she has this very realization. After all, if you were talking to someone over instant messaging and they seemed to know every detail of everything, you’d realize it was an AI."

He also knows what will happen after Watson performance is commented on, the significance of Jeopardy will be lessened and it will be looked at as a fact finding game, something computers should be good at, and emotions and humor are where humanness lies, but the door are being knocked on and human uniqueness is shrinking.  

"What will be the significance of a computer passing the Turing test?  If it is really a properly designed test it would mean that this AI is truly operating at human levels. And I for one would then regard it as human. I’m expecting this to happen within two decades, but I also expect that when it does, observers will continue to find things wrong with it."

Well we may not have to wait too long to find out, just ask Watson.
Thanks for reading,

February 2, 2011

Church in the Pub?

People who are even semi active in the community of skepticism will have known about different Skeptics in the Pub going on, as they are successfully  taking place in numerous cities all over the globe. If imitation is the greatest act of flattery, skeptics should start to feel good about themselves because at least one pub near my home town is starting to offer church in the pub.

The Tir Nan Og has started offering a church 'service' on Sundays from 7-10 in Kingston Ontario. During that time, "There will be live music, dancing and drama by local performers and an extremely brief address by pastor Steve Fritz-Millett, who was introduced to such services while living in New Zealand." This service obviously isn't aimed at the traditional bible thumping crowed, as it will be the bass that is thumping the bible now.

Now I could go a few directions from here, but I think I'll start with talking about the decline of the church and why church in the pub brings some of what it has lost back. Church used to be, in poker terms, the only game in town. Entertainment and social integration came through the act of getting together on Sundays and it was the only option for people who didn't have facebook or radios. Singing, and dancing weren't a inconsequential part of church service, and while the community building aspect is included in bringing people together to talk about morality, it's importance has also faded at a community level.

Now there are a plethora of free and dare I say more entertaining options for people, anything from clubs to internet sites. While, this has been the case for a while, and there were other options in the past as well, something has changed. Church as went from the only game in town, to being equal or nearly equal in the two previously mentioned categories, and now it has been far surpassed.

This also accounts for the information gained from a Gallup poll about religiosity in different countries, which points out that,

"Each of the most religious countries is relatively poor, with a per-capita GDP below $5,000. This reflects the strong relationship between a country's socioeconomic status and the religiosity of its residents. In the world's poorest countries -- those with average per-capita incomes of $2,000 or lower -- the median proportion who say religion is important in their daily lives is 95%. In contrast, the median for the richest countries -- those with average per-capita incomes higher than $25,000 -- is 47%."

Correlation doesn't mean causation, and there are numerous reasons for poorer people to be more religious but it would make sense with the numbers that as people get more options for community involvement and entertainment, they would rely on religion less for those things. I'd argue that a large factor is what I described above.

I think church in the pub goes a little way towards getting some of that back, while also creating some free press. I don't know many people motivated to see a choir, even when they have the ability to join in, but when you add a band, tone down the rhetoric and include some drinking everything inevitably gets a little more interesting, heck I'm not above taking a cheap shot here, it may even take drinking to make some of those passages make sense.

Yet, there is a question of what the bible says about drinking that remains to be answered. The pastor is quoted as saying that, "Jesus's first miracle was to turn water into wine at a wedding. Jesus was against people overindulging in alcohol, but not alcohol itself." and while that is true, as is the case with most arguments based on biblical words the opposite case could be made depending on what quotes you cherry pick.

A good list of them come from, What the Bible Says About Drunkenness and Why It's Wrong, from which I'll take a few and show them here:

Proverbs 23 - Verse 29 "Show me people who drink too much, who have to try out fancy drinks, and I will show you people who are miserable and sorry for themselves, always causing trouble and always complaining. Their eyes are bloodshot, and they have bruises that could have been avoided."

Isaiah 28 - Verse 1 "Destruction is certain for the city of Samaria - the pride and joy of the drunkards of Israel! 7 Israel is being led by drunks! The priests and prophets reel and stagger from beer and wine. They make stupid mistakes as they carry out their responsibilities." (The other sites emphasis)

Galations 5 - Verse 19  "When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, your lives will produce these evil results: sexual immorality, impure thoughts, eagerness for lustful pleasure, 20 idolatry, participation in demonic activities, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group, 21 envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other kinds of sin." (Sites emphasis again)

Ephesians 5 - Verse 18 "Don't be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, let the Holy Spirit fill and control you."

So I think the case can be made that drinking isn't something that is actively encouraged within the bible, but there are also passages that don't demonize it to the level that those previous quotes do. Either way I think that more of this type of thing will begin to happen and I'm actually alright with it. I support peoples freedom to talk about whatever they like, especially in a public place like a pub, but it goes further than that as well. A bar is a more comfortable to raise questions and disagreement, somewhere much more conducive to an open exchange of information, and while I wouldn't buy what they were selling they can try to sell it to mature people.

In fact, I think all church should be held in pubs and bars. People, at least where I'm from, have to be 19 to go to the bar and as such they would be old enough to make decisions about what to believe for themselves, instead of being indoctrinated with beliefs. Now it may be argued that people are indoctrinated with scientific information from schools, but I'd think it would be wrong to term science in schools as indoctrination as whats really being encouraged is for people test ideas and to think for themselves. 

Thanks for reading,