Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Science of Science Fiction: AI vs. IA

A: A computer that can understand human language (especially the difference between questions and answers) better than any computer before it.

Q: What is Watson?

Watson is the supercomputer that's competing on Jeopardy! this week against two human superchampions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. (For what it's worth, I actually was on the show ages ago, back in 1997. I came in second, so I can sing along with Weird Al that "I Lost on Jeopardy!" I did win a week-long trip to New York City, however.) We're recording the shows, though the odds of me finding time to watch TV are about the same as me break dancing on my lab bench. (Hint: the bench is very crowded with lots of heavy, expensive equipment.) Still, I find the idea of a computer this intelligent fascinating.

Computers have a long history in science fiction. I won't even try to enumerate the TV shows, movies, and books where they have appeared, though you can find some information on Wikipedia, as well as here and here. For a long time, computers and the artificial intelligence (AI) they represent have been considered a threat to humans. But even while some scientists have researched AIs, others have examined the other end of the spectrum, intelligence augmentation, or IA. This article in the New York Times online looks at both AI and IA.

Computer technology still needs to develop some more before computers as powerful as Watson become commonplace, especially if you want to make them the size of a desktop. (Just like some of the early computers, Watson takes up a roomful of servers.) If and when this happens, then more of the jobs that humans hold today may be done by computer. (I hope it will be a long time before computers take over fiction writing!) However, computers can also be used to harness the potential of many human minds. For example, games like EteRNA (I'm registered for this, but I don't have time to participate) allow people to simulate RNA folding. People still beat computers when it comes to pattern recognition. Our smartphones and other gadgets allow us to extend our skills.

So, will humans and computers meet in the middle, or will the computers take over? What effects will this have on society? Will handmade items be more or less valued? The answers lie not just in the future, but in the minds of science fiction authors everywhere.


Porky said...

Interesting post. I'm not a strong believer in the 'singularity' concept, at least not yet, but I do accept that AI could eventually be indistinguishable from 'natural intelligence'. The idea of an AI one day writing a novel, for example, doesn't seem to me so strange.

On the other hand, it does seem more intuitive that existing minds can be improved gradually, more even than AI 'emerging' without real understanding on the parts of the creators.

I would argue though that we need to stop thinking of the research as research and more as an act of creation. If what is created is a form of life, that life deserves protection.

For a view of a compelling possible future I recommend Orion's Arm, and this page might be a good starting point:

Angela Felsted said...

Oh yeah, I see that special on Watson last night on PBS. Very interesting.

Eric said...

Great post, Sandra. I've been watching this with interest. Oh, and I have a surprise for you on my blog, and I hope you're not mad about it ;)

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Porky, I agree that if/when computers become sentient, they deserve rights and protection.

Angela, I'll have to see if PBS reruns that show.

Eric, all I can say is wow. And thank you.

gideon 86 said...

Hi, Sandra,

I hopped over from the Crusader list to introduce myself and follow.

This is so cool and on Friday we get our first challenge.
It should be fun.


Michael Offutt said...

I wonder if the computer will beat those Jeopardy guys.

Dan said...

That's awesome that you were on Jeopardy. I went to a tryout years ago, but didn't make the cut.

Greetings from a fellow Crusader.


Rogue Mutt said...

Like another Blogger said, the computer's main advantage was being able to ring in faster than human reflexes.

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