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,

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