March 14, 2011

Watson Can Swim

With IBM's Watson beating the pants off Jennings and Rutter in Jeopardy, a lot of people want to know can computers can really think?

Both sides of this debate have shown up in the last few weeks in some fascinating editorials in the Wall Street Journal.

On one hand, on 23 February 2011, John Searle of the University of California, Berkeley wrote that "IBM invented an ingenious program--not a computer that can think." According to Searle, Watson (or any computer for that matter) is not thinking but is simulating thinking.

In his most passionate expression, Searle exclaims: "Watson did not understand the questions, nor its answers, not that some of its answers were right and some wrong, not that it was playing a game, nor that it won--because it doesn't understand anything."

Today, on 14 March 2011 on the other hand, Stephen Baker, author of "Final Jeopardy--Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything" took the opposing view and stated: "Watson is an early sighting of a highly disruptive that can handle [information] jobs held by people."

To the question of whether machine thinking is "real" thinking? Baker quotes David Ferrucci, IBM's chief scientist who when asked if Watson can think, responded "Can a submarine swim?"

The analogy is a very good one.

Just because a submarine doesn't swim like a fish or a person, doesn't mean it can't swim. In fact and in a sense, for the very reason that it doesn't swim exactly like a fish or person, it actually can swim better.

So too with computers, just because they don't "think" like humans doesn't mean they don't think. They just think differently and again in sense, maybe for the very same reason, in certain ways they can think better.

How can a computer sometimes think better than a person? Well here are just some possible examples (non-exhaustive):

- Computers can evaluate options purely based on facts (and not get "bogged down" in emotions, conflict, ego, and so forth like human beings).

- Computers can add processing power and storage at the push of button, like in cloud computing (people have the gray matter between their ears that G-d gave them, period).

- Computers do not tire by a problem--they will literally mechanically keep attacking it until solved (like cracking a password).

- Computers can be upgraded over time with new hardware, software, and operating systems (unlike people who age and pass).
At the same time, it is important to note that people still trump computers in a number of facets:

- We can evaluate things based on our conscience and think in terms of good and evil, and faith in a higher power (a topic of a prior blog).

- We can care for one another--especially children and the needy--in a altruistic way that is not based on information or facts, but on love.

- We can work together like ants in a colony or bees in a hive or crowdsourcing on- or off-line to get large jobs done with diversity and empowerment.

- We are motivated to better ourselves and our world--to advance ourselves, families, and society through continuous improvement.
Perhaps, like the submarine and the fish, both of which can "swim" in their own ways, so too both computers and people can "think"--each in their own capacity. Together, computers and people can augment the other--being stronger and more effective in carrying out the great tasks and challenges that confront us and await.


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