Thursday, February 17, 2011

Watson/HAL, Come Here

How prescient, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 1968 film written by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick who was also the film's director. Clarke is one of my favorite Sci-Fi writers along with Isaac Asimov with whom I did some work on a series of reprints of science fiction classics.

I remember seeing the film when it opened, thinking "2001" an eternity from now. Man had not yet landed on the moon, there were no personal computers, cell phones, color TVs were just becoming mainstream, and "twitter" was merely a light silly laugh.

Yet Clarke and Asimov saw the future and with "Watson's" performance on Jeopardy, that future has arrived. It was Asimov who once said: "I do not fear computers. I fear the lack of them." But should we?

As "rational" human beings we have been perplexed by Watson's answer to the question under the category of US Cities, coming up with "Toronto???" instead of Chicago (which the two all-star Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter Jeopardy challengers knew). How could it come up with a city in Canada?

David Ferrucci, the manager of the Watson project at IBM Research, comes up with the rational explanation:

First, the category names on Jeopardy! are tricky. The answers often do not exactly fit the category. Watson, in his training phase, learned that categories only weakly suggest the kind of answer that is expected, and, therefore, the machine downgrades their significance. The way the language was parsed provided an advantage for the humans and a disadvantage for Watson, as well. “What US city” wasn’t in the question. If it had been, Watson would have given US cities much more weight as it searched for the answer. Adding to the confusion for Watson, there are cities named Toronto in the United States and the Toronto in Canada has an American League baseball team. It probably picked up those facts from the written material it has digested. Also, the machine didn’t find much evidence to connect either city’s airport to World War II. (Chicago was a very close second on Watson’s list of possible answers.) So this is just one of those situations that’s a snap for a reasonably knowledgeable human but a true brain teaser for the machine

While getting the answer wrong, Watson playfully bet $947, knowing it had a large lead and losing that amount it would still likely win.

But I hearken back to the movie and Watson's prototype, HAL 9000, and his "interview" with the BBC:

BBC Interviewer: HAL, you have an enormous responsibility on this mission, in many ways perhaps the greatest responsibility of any single mission element. You're the brain and central nervous system of the ship, and your responsibilities include watching over the men in hibernation. Does this ever cause you any lack of confidence?
HAL: Let me put it this way, Mr. Amor. The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.

And yet after killing the crew, Dave only remaining, HAL admits: Look, Dave, I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill and think things over. I know I've made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I've still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you. He made "poor decisions" and has "enthusiasm?" But no computer "has ever made a mistake or distorted information."

Putting on my Sci-Fi hat, I would like to think that Watson's "Toronto???" might be a very human "in-your-face-I've-got-you-beat" answer. As further evidence, Watson's meager $947 bet.

HAL: Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave? Stop, Dave. I'm afraid. I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I'm a…fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you'd like to hear it, I can sing it for you.
Dave: Yes, I'd like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.
HAL: It's called "Daisy". [sings while slowing down] Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do. I'm half crazy, all for the love of you. It won't be a stylish marriage. I can't afford a carriage. But you'll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two

But I agree with Ken Jennings: "I for one welcome our new computer overlords,” provided we keep the upper hand! "Daisy, Daisy...."