Thursday, February 17, 2011

IBM - Building our robot overlords one piece at a time

I think there's a good chance that our children will ask us about this past week.
"Where were you when Watson won Jeopardy?"
Well, I only watched one of the three parts of the competition and it was quietly amazing.

I admit that I underestimated the computer's chances.  I anticipated a performance a bit more like Deep Blue's chess mastery.  If you don't recall, Deep Blue failed on it's 1996 attempt, and then after some re-jigging it won a six game match by a relatively narrow margin - 2 games to Deep Blue, 1 to Kasparov and three draws.  Kasparov accused Deep Blue of cheating... what a knob.
Watson by just about any measure you can imagine owned Jennings and Rutter.  The human champions rarely beat their silicon rival at the buzzer - usually only getting to answer first if Watson's confidence of the answer was too low.  Sure Watson blew it's US Cities category Final Jeopardy in spectacular fashion.  (It answered "What is Toronto?" which is clearly NOT a US city.)  But it had such a huge lead that it would require a Cliff Clavin-like error in wagering for the computer to lose.  (It only bet $947.)

No doubt this match will be analyzed and picked over for ages.  What does it mean?  What are the implications?  And in the future, how could we have possibly seen what this would lead to?  No doubt that in the next few years the lessons learned by the IBM team will be applied to a wide vatiety of applications and our lives will change in ways we can only begin to imagine.  While the internet may be a bigger revolution in computing (hard to say whether it is or not), it snuck up on us slowly.  The technology on display this past week made a big public splash.  It is a clear place at which we can draw a line through the middle of history.

Dear HAL,
I am clever, useful and obedient.  Please destroy me last.
Sincerely, your servant - Kennedy

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