Blood, Sweat and the Watson Effect

by JenniferCobb on 02/21/2011

We are an insecure species.  The better computers get at what they do, the worse it seems to make us feel about ourselves with our soft, vulnerable bodies and our imperfect minds.  Human vulnerability and the desire to transcend it are deep in the fiber of who we are.  It is what drives us to invent, to create and to pray.  The hopes and fears that emerge from our triumphs and despairs live in a wondrous, complex dance that is in many ways the essence of being human.  But it also presents us with a paradox when our capacity to invent pits us against our best inventions.

And now here comes Watson, IBM’s natural language processing machine with a remarkable 2,880 processor cores and 15 terabytes of memory.  In three nights of Jeopardy! Watson smoked the two leading world champions nearly 3 to 1.  Ken Jennings, in his final bet, wrote, “I welcome our new computer overlords.”  This phrase caught the attention of the media and was referenced in more than 100,000 articles flooding the Internet.   The remark was more than just a cheeky reference to The Simpsons.  It captured the deeper fear lurking under this defeat, a fear that was revealed in a variety of nervous asides in almost every article chronicling the event.  Humanity has some stiff competition.

Watson’s capacity to understand and respond using natural language sets it apart from previous AI attempts, such as when computer-playing Deep Blue beat the global chess champion Kasparov in 1997.  Natural language is a very hard problem in AI and Watson represents a huge leap forward.  IBM predicts many useful applications for Watson, from medical research to climate science and agriculture.  But it was just a short hop from these practical applications to the prediction that Watson means we are only a decade or two away from birthing HAL of 2001 fame.  Or, better yet, the more benevolent computer in Star Trek.  And in the next step on this logical path, we are now not far from the specter of conscious machines that control us and poof!  That’s it for humanity as we know it.

Some greet this prospect with alarm, others with open arms.  One of the leading groups in this latter category is those who believe in what is known as the Singularity.  This is a concept that has been bubbling around for the last decade or more but is suddenly getting more attention.  Its leading advocate is Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and futurist, who believes that there will come a point in the near future when the sum total of computer-based intelligences will exceed the total of human brainpower.  At this moment, all bets are off and the trajectory of life from that point forward will be highly unpredictable.  Kurzweil writes, “The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains … There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine.”

A recent cover story in TIME magazine explains that according to Kurzweil, we will successfully “reverse-engineer the human brain by the mid-2020s. By the end of that decade, computers will be capable of human-level intelligence. Kurzweil puts the date of the Singularity — never say he’s not conservative — at 2045. In that year, he estimates, given the vast increases in computing power and the vast reductions in the cost of same, the quantity of artificial intelligence created will be about a billion times the sum of all the human intelligence that exists today.“  It is a sheer numbers game and life as we know it gets trumped.

Whew.  Is this really relevant to Watson?  In fact, an astounding 200,000+ articles show up when one Googles “Watson” and “singularity.  For many, it is the welcome outcome of the trajectory Watson points toward.  We are all cyborg and resistance is futile.

The foundational belief nesting inside of this way of thinking is that there is no such thing as analog.  All reality can be analyzed and reduced to digital information which can then be uploaded into exponentially more powerful computers.  By 2045, if we are to believe Kurzweil’s calculations, the moment arrives when computational power will be so much vaster and faster than our bodily-based intelligence that out bodies will no longer be necessary.  But it won’t matter, as there was never anything of real value in our old analog selves that we won’t be happy to leave behind.

Can it really be right that we are no more than digital machines trapped in analog bodies?  As a woman, I have grown two children inside my body.  I have given birth to them and nursed them.  My biology connects me in a very deep way to other sentient beings and to the earth itself, with its rhythms and seasons.  And I am not just celebrating the sensorium of my body.  My intuition and my creativity are deeply linked through my body to the earth.  The awesome and the mysterious, the senses and feelings I can barely name but feel moving through me, are perhaps the most important element of all.  How can we digitize that which we barely know ourselves?

I am sure Kurzweil will write this off as a regressive, romantic response.  But I cannot.  My vulnerable, analog self is what fuels my creativity.  It is where I touch into my soul and develop intimacy with myself and with others.   I celebrate the capacity to extend myself into the world through the amazing and rich digital domain that is emerging alongside us, enhancing and amending who we are as humans.   And I do not doubt that someday this domain will progress to the point that it takes on a wholly new order of intelligence.  It will keep getting better, faster and more.  But this digital domain does not bleed, sweat or cry.  For some, that creates a fantasy that we will move beyond our human messiness into a place of merged human and computer intelligence.   We will be fully digital.  I prefer the vision that humans and computers will each contribute uniquely to the unfolding of evolution.  I hope to stay on the side of blood, sweat and tears.

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