February 11, 2011

Machine, Checkmate.

It’s the eternal battle of Man vs. Machine—our biggest fear and greatest hope—which is ultimately superior?

On one hand, we are afraid of being overtaken by the very technology we build, and simultaneously, we are hopeful at what ailments technology can cure and what it can help us achieve.

In spite of our hopes and fears, the overarching question is can we construct computers that will in fact surpass our own distinct human capabilities?

This week IBM’s Supercomputer Watson will face off against two of the all-time-greatest players, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a game of Jeopardy—at stake is $1.5 million in prize money.

Will we see a repeat of technology defeating humankind as happened in 1997, when IBM’s Supercomputer at the time, Deep Blue, beat Garry Kasparov, world-champion, in chess?

While losing some games—whether chess or Jeopardy—is perhaps disheartening to people and their mental acuity; does it really take away from who we are as human beings and what makes us “special” and not mere machines?

For decades, a machine’s ability to act “more human” than a person has been testing the ever-thinning divide between man and machine.

An article in The Atlantic (March 2011) called Mind vs. Machine exposes the race to build computers that can think and communicate like people.

The goal is to use artificial intelligence in machines to rival real intelligence in humans and to fool a panel of judges at the annual meeting for the Loebner Prize and pass the Turing test.

Alan Turing in his 1950’s paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” asked whether machines can think? He posited that if a judge could not tell machine from human in text-only communication (to mask the difference in sounds being machines and humans), then the machine was said to win!

Turing predicted that by the year 2000, computers would be able to fool 30% of human judges after five minutes of conversations.” While this has not happened, it has come close (missing by only one deception) in 2008 with an AI program called Elbot.

Frankly, it is hard for me to really imagine computers that can talk with feelings and expressiveness—based on memories, tragedies, victories, hopes, and fears—the way people do.

Nevertheless, computer programs going back to the Eliza program in 1964 have proven very sophisticated and adept as passing for human, so much so that “The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease" in 1966 said of Eliza that: “several hundred patients an hour could be handled by a computer system designed for this purpose.” Imagine that a computer was proposed functioning as a psychotherapist already 45 years ago!

I understand that Ray Kurzweil has put his money on IBM’s Watson for the Jeopardy match this week, and that certainly is in alignment with his vision of “The Singularity” where machines overtake humans in an exponentially accelerating advancement of technology toward “massive ultra-intelligence.”

Regardless of who wins Jeopardy this week—man or machine—and when computers finally achieve the breakthrough Turing test, I still see humans as distinct from machines, not in their intellectual or physical capabilities, but ultimately in the moral (or some would call it religious) conscience that we carry in each one of us. This is our ability to choose right from wrong—and sometimes to choose poorly.

I remember learning in Jewish Day School (“Yeshiva”) that humans are a combination—half “animal” and half “soul”. The animal part of us lusts after all the is pleasurable, at virtually any cost, but the soul part of us is the spark of the divine that enables us to choose to be more—to do what’s right, despite our animal cravings.

I don’t know of any computer, super or not, that can struggle between pleasure and pain and right and wrong, and seek to grow beyond it’s own mere mortality through conscious acts of selflessness and self-sacrifice.

Even though in our “daily grind,” people may tend to act as automatons, going through the day-to-day motions virtually by rote, it is important to rise above the machine aspect of our lives, take the “bigger picture” view and move our lives towards some goals and objectives that we can ultimately be proud of.

When we look back on our lives, it’s not how successful we became, how much money and material “things” we accumulated—these are the computerized aspects of our lives that we sport. Rather, it’s the good we do for our others that will stay behind long after we are gone. So whether the computer has a bigger database, faster processor, and better analytics—good for it—in the end, it has nothing on us humans.

Man or machine—I say machine, checkmate!


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