Friday Report: Watson, come here!
April 28, 2011
I take a little personal pride in the fact that I’m smarter than my dog. Oh sure, she outwits me from time to time but overall, when it comes to brains, I’ve got her, hands down. Paws down, maybe.
The casual observer might describe my basset hound as “a bit chunky.” That’s because for four years she’s been able to outwit me, living on a steady diet of color-enhancing fish food that she steals from the cabinet under the aquarium. You might have seen her, she’s electric orange and walks around Fraser sometimes.
Like the original “locked room mystery” I couldn’t figure out how she was doing it. Then one day I caught her wedged behind the cabinet with a can of fish flakes edge-wise in her jowls. She couldn’t get out without letting go of the fish food, and she wouldn’t let go of the fish food to get out. I didn’t know quite what to do, but I still think the police and the paramedics should have been more understanding.
As smart as we are, and as much as we lord it over our dogs, there’ll come a day when computers may feel the same way about us. This isn’t my thought, nor is it new.
Some people were thinking like this hundreds of years ago. Back in 1847, the editor of the periodical, Primitive Expounder, decried the invention of the mechanical calculator, saying, “… such machines by which the scholar may by turning a crank grind out the solution of a problem without the fatigue of mental application would by its introduction into schools do incalculable injury.”
But then, in the next sentence, he looks 200 years directly into the future to say, “But who knows that such machines when brought to greater perfection may not think of a plan to remedy all their own defects and then grind out ideas beyond the ken of mortal mind.”
Scientists are on the cusp of building smarter computers and developing algorithms to have those smarter machines build machines that are smarter still. Algorithms are series of simple tasks, organized to achieve a more complex result. Many scientists agree that within 40 years, a computer will look around and announce, like the philosopher, Rene Descartes 400 years ago, “I think, therefore I am.”
This can only turn out two ways. The sinister side was summed up by former Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings after a serious drubbing by the IBM super computer, Watson. He said, only half in jest, “I for one welcome our new computer overlords.” Will computers become so intelligent and self-aware that mankind finds itself sacrificing goats in front of them?
Or will we head the other direction, where computers become tools to make life better? Think how much more effective medical practice could become if a robotic assistant could distill every idea in existence concerning a patient’s illness or accident, turning this vast wealth of knowledge into concise options for a physician or surgeon to review before making their own decision. Will a smarter machine bring us cold fusion and limitless energy, freeing mankind from the addiction to fossil fuel?
We’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we? Right now, I’m just trying to figure out why I come running every time the TV calls.