Friday, June 25, 2010

Spaces Yet Remain for Humankind

Rest easy, fellow humans --- for the moment. The day of our obsolescence at the hands of super-intelligent robots is not yet at hand -- in our head-to-head match, I doubled up on evil robot Watson:


Sadly, though, this indicates that the people at IBM are already toiling for our future robot overlords and successors:
For the last three years, I.B.M. scientists have been developing what they expect will be the world’s most advanced “question answering” machine, able to understand a question posed in everyday human elocution — “natural language,” as computer scientists call it — and respond with a precise, factual answer.
Though I did defeat the machine -- I would actually put at nothing less than humble the machine, and humiliate the machine fits too, but I digress -- it was a surprisingly good showing, especially in its handling of the "before and after" questions, which call for a fairly nuanced comprehension of natural speech and the broader context of its use.

An example was something along these lines -- I am mangling the phrasing here: "Make a new dynamic duo that combines Bruce Wayne's alter-ego and the legendary Sherwood Forest bandit," with the answer being "Batman and Robin Hood." The tricky part is in how these kinds of questions demand pretty exact phrasing in the answer, so it would not have worked to say "Robin Hood and Batman" or "Batman and Robin, Robin Hood."Others of the same type were more complex than that example, and yet Watson successfully cobbled together the correct answer (or would have if I hadn't answered first).

Impressive and "cool" as it is, the continuing advance of this technology -- really, the basis for its commercial appeal and the explanation for IBM's willingness to invest in it -- threatens to crowd out the demand for old-fashioned human labor. We humans are the gods of the gaps left by the technologies we create, and those gaps are narrowing and closing. Of course, this is nothing new -- it is one of the central dynamics of the industrial age and human civilization in general -- but it's especially unwelcome in this time of economic hardship and ever-sinking prospects. (Here ends the Luddism for now).

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