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What Is The Meaning Of This, Watson? (Spring 2011 Commencement Address, Saturday afternoon)

  • Date: 05/07/2011
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Over the course of three days in February, humanity reached a turning point in its history. Or nothing of any significance happened. It all depends on whom you ask.

    What is certain is that from Feb. 14th to16th, an IBM supercomputer named “Watson,” after that company’s founder, Thomas J. Watson, decisively beat two human competitors in a highly publicized, three-day match on the television trivia program, “Jeopardy!”.

    Some futurists and pundits saw this as a bellwether event, and that it was “only a matter of time before (computers) pass the famous ‘Turing test’ in which chat box programs compete to fool human judges into believing they are human.”[i] Others, like New York Times columnist and scholar Stanley Fish, dismissed the event, saying that Watson “does not come within a million miles of replicating the achievements of everyday human action and thought.”

    There were murmurings of a publicity stunt. One of Watson’s vanquished foes was Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings, who good-naturedly capitulated by writing on his card, “I for one welcome our new computer overlords.” Jennings later admitted in online chats that what we had witnessed was not so much a computer outthinking two humans, but the triumph of circuit-board speed over human neural networks in activating a buzzer.[ii]

    There also were moments during the match when, like a heavyweight boxer stumbling after a badly thrown punch, the formidable Watson missed questions with bafflingly illogical answers.

    And let us not forget that Watson required several years, 90 computer servers and a team of programmers to reach this point. Even assuming continuing advances in computer performance, the most optimistic estimates are that a decade will pass before such massive power is squeezed into a desktop computer.[iii] Of course, to reach our capacities, the human brain has undergone continued evolution over several hundreds of thousands of years, whereas computers have been evolving for barely more than half a century.

    So was it all simply an excellent marketing ploy, a win-win situation in which the ABC Network gained Neilsen ratings, and IBM garnered the national spotlight in which to debut a new product?

    I’m afraid it’s not that easy. Something significant did happen on those three winter nights. Watson led us to another bend in humanity’s path, as we now enter the age of question-answering machines.

    Recall what it was we witnessed. When verbally asked a question, a computer spoke back its answer. And consider the types of questions. They were riddles, rhymes and quips, not simple yes-or-no questions. The computer recognized patterns and relationships and it responded – quickly, accurately and audibly.

    I will not plunge into the metaphysical debate as to whether or not Watson can think. What I will bring to your attention are two considerations that, as graduates, should be of some importance to you: one is the accelerating growth rate of computer power, and the other is its commercial implication.

    According to the Financial Times, even skeptics among computer scientists acknowledge that something significant happened. Rodney Brooks, professor of robotics at MIT, said “If you had talked to sober people working on (artificial intelligence) five years ago about this, they would have said it was 20 or 30 years away.”[iv]

    In 1965 Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, predicted that processing power would double every 18 months, with corresponding price decreases. Moore’s Law, as that prediction came to be known, has taken us from the era of mainframes that occupied entire floors of buildings, to the immensely more powerful iPhone tucked in your pocket, in the span of a single lifetime. If we have come that far in so short a time, where are we going next?

    Futurists like famed author and inventor Ray Kurzweil, believe computers are not only getting faster, but that the rate at which they are getting faster is increasing, and will continue to do so.[v] In fact, Kurzweil is so convinced that this exponential growth will lead to a technological singularity – a point at which progress in technology occurs almost instantly – that in 2009 he and X Prize founder Peter Diamandis established the Singularity University in Silicon Valley to prepare future leaders who will “facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools.”[vi]

    However, this belief is not unanimous. Other equally renowned authorities are more conservative. Michio Kaku, the co-founder of string field theory, says that barring a major technological breakthrough, the rate at which computing power doubles will slow down dramatically, perhaps within this decade.

    Regardless of who is right, what we do know is that the speed of business is increasing. On Feb. 17 – the very next day after the Jeopardy! match – the Associated Press reported that IBM Corp had signed deals with two hospitals, Columbia University Medical Center, and the University of Maryland School of Medicine, to test the Watson technology.[vii] USA Today also reported on Feb. 17 that IBM had partnerships with eight universities to explore new uses of Watson’s “Deep Question” technology.[viii]

    The New York Times reported that IBM executives also were in discussions with a major consumer electronics retailer to develop a version of Watson that could interact with consumers on everything from technical support to buying decisions.[ix] That led to speculation of Watson’s use in a myriad of applications, from helping shoppers at grocery stores find the items they want, to answering travelers’ questions at airports and train stations.

    Others have looked farther down the road at the implications of Watson.  Author Stephen Baker said, “These question-answering machines will soon be working alongside us in offices and laboratories, and forcing us to make adjustments to what we learn and how we think. Watson is an early sighting of a highly disruptive force…The key is to regard these computers not as human wannabes but rather as powerful tools…The “intelligence” of these tools matters little. What counts is the information they deliver.”[x]

    The futurist Michio Kaku takes this even further. He foresees a time, perhaps within a decade or two, when the first person you see about an annoying pain in your neck or a strange-sounding cough won’t be a person at all, but an artificial intelligence robo-assistant.[xi]

    New technology inevitably unleashes a wave of what economists call creative destruction. New industries rise and push out older ones, and jobs are eliminated in one field as they are created in another. As John Markoff stated so well in the New York Times, “Economists have (long) argued that while new forms of automation may displace jobs in the short run, over longer periods of time economic growth and job creation have continued to outpace any job-killing technologies.”[xii]

    And that is a powerfully uplifting lesson, graduates. Technology can enhance our potential if we have the foresight and flexibility to put it to use.  Or as one American philosopher so eloquently said, “In times of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future.”[xiii]

    Graduates, you are the learners. You are the inheritors.



    [i] Ray Kurzweil, When Computers Beat Humans on Jeopardy, The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 17, 2011. Opinion page

    [ii] Matthew Lynley, Watson Supercomputer Defeated in Jeopardy by Lone Physicist – Long Live Humanity!, March 7, 2011 Venture Beat.com

    [iii] Kurzeil, ibid

    [iv] Richard Waters, Financial Times, Feb. 16, 2011 “Information Technology: Mind Games” See website.

    [v] Lev Grossman, Feb. 10, 2011, Time, “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal”

    [vi] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singularity_University

    [vii] Associated Press appearing in the Wall Street Journal, Feb. 17, 2011, “After ‘Jeopardy!’ win, IBM program steps out.

    [viii] Dan Vergano, USA Today, Feb. 17, 2011, Watson Plays ‘Jeopard!’ Well, But What Else Can It Do?”

    [ix] Ron Lieber, The New York Times, Feb. 17, 2011 Bucks column, “What Could I.B.M.’s Watson Do For You?”

    [x] Stephen Baker, Wall Street Journal, March 14, 2011. “Watson Is Far From Elementary,” p.A17

    [xi] Glenn Harlan Reynolds, March 23, 2011, The Wall Street Journal, “Let’s Hope the Robots Are Nice.”

    [xii] John Markoff, The New York Times, Feb. 14, 2011, “A Fight to Win The Future: Computers Vs. Humans.

    [xiii] Thinkexist.com: http://thinkexist.com/quotation/in_a_time_of_drastic_change_it_is_the_learners/10724.html

  • Topic Category: Technological Advances
  • Tags: technology artificial intelligence computers
  • Filed in:

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