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The end is Nigh, and it’s name is Watson

15 Feb

My husband came home last night, quite excited because there was a computer system competing on Jeopardy. Being the fellow geek that I am, I was soon drawn into the drama, the new breakthrough in programing that would allow a computer to parse the questions and come up with accurate answers. It’s a fascinating topic and one I’ve always loved, but I’m of the mind that a computer will never be as good at thinking as a human. No Data in our future, which in one sense is a pity. On the other hand, I’ve seen enough fiction about sentient computers that run amok to be a little edgy about the idea. Yes, I know it’s a little far fetched, but perhaps not. Most new inventions have good intentions that can be applied in devious or unintended and unimagined ways. I’m in favor of thinking more carefully over the potential uses of all new things, but alas, that rarely happens.

So we sat down and watched Jeopardy live for the first time in years uncounted. It was night one of a three night challenge. The computer was called Watson. At first, it said and did nothing, leaving the first few questions unanswered. And then it kicked in, and I must admit, a shiver ran down my spine. It sounded like Hal, and spoke in complete sentences. It cleaned off half the board in very short order and left the humans, who are Jeopardy champions I might add, in the dust. One resorted to buzzing in before he’s figured out the answer just to get a chance to answer it. My husband and I speculated on when exactly the computer was given the question and weather that was quite fair or not.

From there we discussed the possibility of a truly thinking machine. My husband saw the documentary footage of how Watson was created, tested and improved. He sees Watson as a learning machine. I still disagree, seeing Watson as a very complex search engine, programmed by humans every inch of the way. Watson takes up a whole room, reminiscent of the first computers back in the 50’s. Every bit of knowledge it has was given to it by humans. It has been programed not to think, but to find answers based on keywords. Heck the entire contents of Wikipedia has been downloaded into it’s hard drive. I don’t see machines ever having the ability to think like we do. Our brains are simply too complex for us to simulate with any accuracy and how could a machine ever have that extra spark that marks true inspiration and innovation? How does man do it for that matter? Our subconscious minds are the super computers in which such thoughts are born. Still, I believe humans have something else, that part of us that is “in the image of God”, that thing that we have but can not create on our own. My husband thinks we can and that it holds the potential for disaster. We at least agree on that score. Thankfully, headway in the thinking computer department is very slow.

We will be watching the final two episodes of this little contest, but despite our differing opinions on the possibility of thinking machine that might spell doom for humanity, we were both still uneasy but utterly fascinated.

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Posted by on February 15, 2011 in Just to be Random

 

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