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Two contestants compete, in vain, against Watson on the television game show Jeopardy.

Voices / Column

Contemplating a not-so-dear Watson

Can artificial intelligence really take the place of human empathy, imagination

Elayne Clift (www.elayneclift.com) writes, and worries about the human costs of technology, in Saxtons River.

Saxtons River

There’s something just a little too creepy for my taste about a computer as smart as Watson, the new electronic genius that made its debut on the TV quiz show “Jeopardy” recently.

The machine, named after IBM’s founder, Thomas B. Watson, was developed over the course of several years by IBM and a company with the onerous name of Nuance Communications, Inc.

On “Jeopardy,” Watson was able to defeat two champions of the game hands down, firing off 24 of 30 correct answers faster than either human being could.

According to blogger Ian Skellern, a computer geek who understands this stuff, “Its huge software powers enable it to do hundreds of simultaneous algorithmic calculations, which help the machine parse human speech patterns, check them against its vast database of knowledge, and provide a most likely answer and a confidence level for that answer.”

If you’re anything like me, you don’t have a clue what terms like “algorithmic calculations” actually mean. You just intuit that Watson can do a whole lot of stuff in its non-human head (remember, it does not have a brain) a lot faster and more accurately than we can. Its capacity to do that is pretty awesome, but it’s pretty scary too.

* * *

Notice that I used the word “intuit” in that last paragraph.

Here’s the thing: Watson can’t intuit. S/he can’t pick up on nuance, or the subtleties of humor, or the idiosyncrasies of individual personalities. Watson can only get answers to specific questions right.

That function is useful and may prove to be an important tool for the practice of medicine or law, as some predict.

But as we continue to move away from face-to-face interactions that require courtesy, patience, diplomacy, and kindness, what does it offer the human species ?

Isn’t there something slightly ominous about the idea of smart, fast machines that lack feelings being used to streamline....what? What do such high-tech offerings auger for issues like privacy — or invasions thereof — for purposes of “national security”?

We’ve already heard nightmare stories of how computers can wreak havoc in our lives. Remember the one about the woman who couldn’t get her Social Security checks because, according to the computer, she was dead? And that computer wasn’t half as smart as Watson!

Remember, too, that Watson’s friends are already being used to lob “smart bombs” — ordinance that occasionally hits people who did nothing wrong, except to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

* * *

When I first heard about Watson, all I could think of was Wilson.

You may recall that Wilson was Tom Hanks’s best friend while Hanks was marooned on an island for seven years in the movie Cast Away. But Wilson was, in fact, nothing more than a volleyball that Hanks painted a crude face on and talked to incessantly to keep himself sane.

The limbless, heartless, brainless Wilson could not talk back, smile, hug, or find a way to get Hanks off the island. It’s true, he did keep Hanks going, but after the first three or four years, my bet is that Wilson proved to be a pretty disappointing companion.

That’s kind of how I feel about Watson.

There may be a role for Wilsons and Watsons, and I value whatever contributions they make, but at the end of the day, can they really take the place of human empathy and imagination? And more importantly, what are we risking, given their potential for abuse?

In launching Watson, IBM said, The goal is “to have computers start to interact in natural human terms across a range of applications and processes, understanding the questions that humans ask and providing answers that humans can understand and justify.”

Just typing those words has my blood pressure up. How can a machine “interact in natural human terms”? That’s the ultimate oxymoron! And “providing answers that humans can [] justify”? Yikes!

When it comes right down to it, I’ll take Wilson any day. He was harmless and possibly lifesaving.

As for Watson, well in my view, it’s elementary: Watson is a pretty scary fellow, and I, for one, would rather not cross paths with him.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #96 (Wednesday, April 13, 2011).

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