Watson reax from an AI researcher, Ken Jennings, and others

I’d like to point our readers to a couple articles of note about IBM’s Watson and its Jeopardy! win.
First, transhumanist and AI researcher Ben Goertzel, writing at, of all places, KurzweilAI.net, seems to agree with my overall assessment of the significance of Watson:
Ray Kurzweil has written glowingly of Watson as an important technology milestone
Indeed no human can do what a search engine does, but computers have still not shown an ability to deal with the subtlety and complexity of language. Humans, on the other hand, have been unique in our ability to think in a hierarchical fashion, to understand the elaborate nested structures in language, to put symbols together to form an idea, and then to use a symbol for that idea in yet another such structure. This is what sets humans apart.

That is, until now. Watson is a stunning example of the growing ability of computers to successfully invade this supposedly unique attribute of human intelligence.
I understand where Kurzweil is coming from, but nevertheless, this is a fair bit stronger statement than I’d make. As an AI researcher myself I’m quite aware of the all subtlety that goes into “thinking in a hierarchical fashion,” “forming ideas,” and so forth. What Watson does is simply to match question text against large masses of possible answer text — and this is very different than what an AI system will need to do to display human-level general intelligence. Human intelligence has to do with the synergetic combination of many things, including linguistic intelligence but also formal non-linguistic abstraction, non-linguistic learning of habits and procedures, visual and other sensory imagination, creativity of new ideas only indirectly related to anything heard or read before, etc. An architecture like Watson barely scratches the surface!
Next, the most witty and astute piece I’ve read on Watson comes from Ken Jennings himself. It turns out that the grace and good humor (in both senses of the word) Jennings displayed on Jeopardy! wasn’t a fluke:

Indeed, playing against Watson turned out to be a lot like any other Jeopardy! game, though out of the corner of my eye I could see that the middle player had a plasma screen for a face. Watson has lots in common with a top-ranked human Jeopardy! player: It’s very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman.

Jennings’s short article is well worth your time to read, as is his equally funny and insightful Q&A session at the Washington Post.
Finally, don’t miss Hijinks Ensue’s comic and Slate’s hilarious video about Watson. Part of the latter is factual, but the premise is about Watson’s quest trying to “make it” on other game shows, such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, The Newlywed Game, and Survivor. Good stuff (though a warning that both have PG-13 elements).

Calling All Monoliths

Back in the eighteenth century, there was a good deal of interest in creating automata, and, like today, it signaled a shifting understanding of the human. Two major tech blogs have recently featured a couple of such projects coming out of Japan. I know between little and nothing about the technical strengths and weaknesses of these robots, or the purposes they are designed to serve. But as an outside observer, I found the contrast between them, and the reactions to them, instructive.

Take the first project, HRP-4C. It was gutsy of its creators to surround it with real-if-not-very-good dancers — but it was right on the line between gutsy and foolhardy, and I thought it stayed mostly on the foolhardy side. The Gizmodo blogger, on the other hand, found it “pretty amazing.” I’m not sure what they are seeing: its movements seem wooden and jerky, not that far advanced over the Disney audio-animatronics that I recall from my youth. And its voice? If we start from the fact that most pop music these days seems designed to make the singer sound synthetic in one way or another, it sounds great. But in any case, “amazing” suggests a pretty low bar.

Actroid-F is a different kettle of fish. Its abilities are more limited than HRP-4C’s, to be sure. But there are a few moments in the video where, if you had isolated them and told me it was an actress pretending to be a robot and not doing that well, I think I would have believed you. That Engadget headlined its post “Actroid-F: the angel of death robot coming to a hospital near you” makes me think that maybe there is something to the “uncanny valley” after all. (Full disclosure: I’m still rooting for some robotic version of Emily.)
It is only to be expected that in the not-so-distant future, these efforts will look as quaint as do the automata of the eighteenth century. But why, exactly? I can only imagine that our transhumanist friends must be somewhat conflicted about these humanoid robots. On one hand, they represent useful progress in areas that will help open doors to human redesign. But on the other hand, how shortsighted it must seem to spend so much effort on replicating those poorly designed meat machines we want to get rid of!

Or perhaps, on that ever-so-desirable third hand, these robots represent transitional forms in a process of making us comfortable working with our evolutionary successors. If transhumanists think we can climb out of the uncanny valley and create robots only an expert can appreciate as such (as in Blade Runner), they might consider those robots to be something like our monolith-transformed hominid ancestors in the opening sequence of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like those apes who haven’t seen the monolith, the humans living among these familiar looking beings may not appreciate the extent to which they are witnessing the dawn of some very new age — and as a result might soon get their heads bashed in. But I forgot — we will develop friendly AI.

The Dawn of Man

Mannequinned space travel

According to NASA, a humanoid robot will be sent into space for the first time later this year. Perhaps fittingly enough, it will be on STS-133, the last manned space mission to be launched directly by NASA for the planned future. Wired magazine writes:

James Hughes, who studies emerging technologies at Trinity University [College], suggested that humanoid robots may provide a nice middle ground between hardcore human spaceflight evangelists and those who would rather see robotic missions. Most space watchers feel that the human programs are what drives interest and funding in exploration, while scientific investigation will be driven by robots.
“A humanoid robot splits the difference. You get some of the advantages of both and hopefully it will be a nice compromise between the two,” said Hughes. “But it may not satisfy either side.”

The article also points out that humanoid robots might fulfill some useful functional gaps. That part is reasonable if true. But to say that humanoid robots split the difference between the cases for manned and robotic space travel is rather like looking at the debate over whether to travel to Mars and saying we can split the difference by going halfway there and back. (Don’t insult my intelligence, Kirk.)

To get a full sense of the folly of socialized robotics — that is, robots that are designed to elicit responses from humans as if they were human, without actually being human — read Caitrin Nicol’s “Till Malfunction Do Us Part.” And don’t miss Robert Zubrin’s case for manned space travel in the new issue of The New Atlantis.
(hat tip: Brian Boyd)