Rage against the machine: Watson isn’t elementary

IBM’s supercomputer Watson is playing Jeopardy against human champions, and the first round was a tie. This is spawning two narratives in the media.

The first narrative – by far the most widepsread – might be summarized thus: OMFG the Machines are kicking our asses! I bow to our mechanical overlords. Where’s my Matrix pod? Fear Skynet!

The second, however, seems to me the more interesting one, and to be honest I haven’t actually found any examples yet of it out there but I am hopeful that someone (besides me, anyway) is writing about it. That narrative might be summarized thus: You mean, with all those gigabits/sec, petabytes, petaflops, and nanoseconds at its disposal, the best the machine can do is tie?

Let’s keep in mind that the combined total of the entire world’s CPU power – the total, across all computers on the planet – is estimated to be the equivalent of one human brain. One.

You might argue that this fact supports narrative #1, the OMFG one. After all, measured in CPU capacity, Watson is kind of toast. But human brains compute using chemical reactions, whereas computers compute using electronics. That means that computers can compute about a hundred to a thousand times faster than we can. (I am reminded of the aliens living on a neutron star in Robert Forward’s landmark scifi novel, Dragon’s Egg, arguably the progenitor of the hard-sci-fi genre). Also, information retrieval using search algorithms on indexed data is obviously far more accurate than the vagaries of memory. So mere compute capacity isn’t the issue. An enormous desert full of rocks has more compute power than my desktop, but you still can’t play Warcraft in any reasonable timescale.

So for a game like Jeopardy – which is full of questions that can be answered quite simply using Google, unlike other Trivia contests I could mention – a computer really should walk all over the poor bags of mostly water who literally have (chemical) soup for brains. I’m not privy to watson’s architecture, but I suspect that Alex reads the question, it’s converted to a text strong by some straightforward voice-to-speech algorithm, processed by natural language algorithms to extract the keywords and rudimentary context, sent off to google or IBM’s inhouse equivalent against Watson’s database, and then the results are ranked using some sort of fuzzy logic (again influenced by the context of the question). Watson takes the most probable answer, sends it through another natural language filter, and constructs a response in the form of a question as per Jeopardy’s rules. With answer in hand, the “buzzer” is activated, and if the humans haven’t already buzzed in by now, that response is vocalized using a Stephen Hawking Box. Nothing about this requires any intelligence, just clever code – and if you are a machine, but your performance depends entirely on the code written by your human handlers, then that’s the digital equivalent of holding HAL by the short hairs.

So please, Watson merely tied the humans? Even if he beats them in the end, anything less than a total rout is indeed a soft bigotry of low expectations. To quote Kirk, “I’m laughing at the Superior Intellect.”