Thursday, June 17, 2010

IBM Computer Wins at Jeopardy

IBM's Watson computer has been designed to play the TV game Jeopardy, and wins quite often. The NYTIMES has a feature article by Clive Thompson on Watson whose title plays on the answer to a Jeopardy question, What Is I.B.M.'s Watson?. While computers like Watson represent a dramatic step forward in the development of Turing Level computing they have clear limitations and can be problematic if used inappropriately.
Watson can answer only questions asking for an objectively knowable fact. It cannot produce an answer that requires judgment. It cannot offer a new, unique answer to questions like “What’s the best high-tech company to invest in?” or “When will there be peace in the Middle East?” All it will do is look for source material in its database that appears to have addressed those issues and then collate and compose a string of text that seems to be a statistically likely answer. Neither Watson nor Wolfram Alpha, in other words, comes close to replicating human wisdom.

CULTURALLY, OF COURSE, advances like Watson are bound to provoke nervous concerns too. High-tech critics have begun to wonder about the wisdom of relying on artificial-intelligence systems in the face of complex reality. Many Wall Street firms, for example, now rely on “millisecond trading” computers, which detect deviations in prices and order trades far faster than humans ever could; but these are now regarded as a possible culprit in the seemingly irrational hourlong stock-market plunge of the spring. Would doctors in an E.R. feel comfortable taking action based on a split-second factual answer from a Watson M.D.?

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