Reading the Week in Review section of the NYT today, I came upon an interesting column about a new computer—dubbed Watson—that its developers hope will rise to the level of AI, defined in the side bar copied above.  Watson will soon be in a “Jeopardy” type competition to see how it does. 

What I found refreshing about the column, by novelist Richard Powers, was the absense of the oft-stated claim that if a machine actually reached the AI level of computering capacity, it would be a person.  Throughout, the new computer is described as a very high tech and powerful tool.  Horray!

This is a small example of the difference between a human being and an AI machine.  From “What is Artificial Intelligence?”

Consider the challenge: Watson will have to be ready to identify anything under the sun, answering all manner of coy, sly, slant, esoteric, ambiguous questions ranging from the “Rh factor” of Scarlett’s favorite Butler or the 19th-century painter whose name means “police officer” to the rhyme-time place where Pelé stores his ball or what you get when you cross a typical day in the life of the Beatles with a crazed zombie classic. And he (forgive me) will have to buzz in fast enough and with sufficient confidence to beat Ken Jennings, the holder of the longest unbroken “Jeopardy!” winning streak, and Brad Rutter, an undefeated champion and the game’s biggest money winner. Machine’s one great edge: Watson has no idea that he should be panicking.

That might be nice in a quiz show context, but in life, it could be a huge impediment.  We don’t just make decisions based on raw data and logic. We are moral agents, who sometimes refuse to do the logical thing because we consider it wrong.  We are emotional beings.  We are impulsive.  We are risk takers.  We are so much more than mere computers, which is how some anti human exceptionalists like to describe us.

And ponder this paragraph:
Does Watson stand a chance of winning? I would not stake my “Final Jeopardy!” nest egg on it. Not yet. Words are very rascals, and language may still be too slippery for it. But watching films of the machine in sparring matches against lesser human champions, I felt myself choking up at its heroic effort, the size of the undertaking, the centuries of accumulating groundwork, hope and ingenuity that have gone into this next step in the long human drama. I was most moved when the 100-plus parallel algorithms wiped out and the machine came up with some ridiculous answer, calling it out as if it might just be true, its cheerful synthesized voice sounding as vulnerable as that of any bewildered contestant.

No, Watson did not make an “heroic effort.” It’s makers, perhaps. But it is just a machine.  It’s voice was not vulnerable.  That was human interpretation, anthropomorphism, if you will.  (I could swear that my GPS voice gets irritated if I don’t take “the highlighted route” and must engage in “recalculating.”) And only a human being could get choked up because of the success of a quest.  You see, only we have such romantic notions.

The piece ends with a Jeopardy-type question and answer:
Should Watson win next week, the news will be everywhere. We’ll stand in awe of our latest magnificent machine, for a season or two. For a while, we’ll have exactly the gadget we need. Then we’ll get needy again, looking for a newer, stronger, longer lever, for the next larger world to move.

For “Final Jeopardy!”, the category is “Players”: This creature’s three-pound, 100-trillion-connection machine won’t ever stop looking for an answer.

The question: What is a human being?

Yup.  Exceptional US.

Articles by Wesley J. Smith

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