Instrumented Interconnecteds Intelligent

ibmwatsonThe excitement about IBM’s computer, Watson, and its appearance on the Jeopardy! game show rose to a feverish pitch as the man versus machine drama played out on television  earlier this week. The machine won–by no means a foregone conclusion. The episode proved that a small team of highly-motivated geniuses backed by an ambitious, deep-pocketed corporation can create a machine capable of beating the most expert of humans at a sophisticated mental game. It is truly a remarkable moment in the history of computer science and innovation.

Yet in Stephen Baker’s book about the contest, Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything, the most interesting questions are not about machines but about humans. This is intentional.  On page 18, Baker writes that, whether the computer won or lost, it is his hope that it “might lead millions of spectators to reflect on the nature, and probe the potential, of their own humanity.”

Baker’s book was released on Feb. 17, the day after Jeopardy! aired the third and final “Watson” show. I consumed it digitally, reading the first chapters in ebook form before the contest was broadcast and gulping down the last one when it was published immediately afterward. It’s a new day for publishing.

Final Jeopardy makes for a captivating read. Baker, who I must divulge is a friend of mine, has a delightful writing and thinking style. He does an artful job of describing complicated technologies and concepts, including artificial intelligence and game theory, and of revealing the strong and colorful personality of the main human protagonist of the drama, Watson project leader David Ferrucci. He has also mastered the art of the put down of smart machines. For example, on page 30, he quips: “In answering these questions, the computer, for all its processing power and memory, resembled nothing so much as a student with serious brain damage.”

As Baker follows the development of “Watson” by IBM scientists step by step, he explains that from the beginning this project was not an attempt to create a machine that mimics the workings of the human brain. Rather, it’s an effort to create a tool that’s expert at doing a few difficult things very well. It figures out what’s being asked in a question, quickly searches its vast database of information for potential answers, evaluates its confidence level in the answer it comes up with and activates a mechanism to signal that it’s prepared to answer the question. It also knows when it doesn’t know the answer.

Even with such a limited agenda, though, the machine’s success forces us human’s to reconsider our role in the future of the planet. Machines don’t just store information and automate tasks these days. They’re taking over more and more of our thinking tasks. As this happens, what will be left for humans to do?

Baker’s conclusion, on the final page of Final Jeopardy: “The solution, from a purely practical point of view, is to fine-tune the mind for the jobs and skills in which the Watsons of the world still struggle: the generation of ideas, concepts, art, and humor.”

That’s true. But executing on this strategy will be a struggle for many people. College professors, business consultants, software architects, pop stars and stand-up comedians have little to fear from computers. But a vast swath of society makes a living doing the kind of knowledge work that smart computers will master. This means many millions of people will have to reinvent themselves—and quickly. This transition will be faster than the agrarian and industrial revolutions.

It’s a challenging time for humans. Globalization has turned the world into one large talent pool where everybody competes with everybody else. Broadband communications networks spread information in milliseconds, making it a commodity. Smart machines force people to be smarter. There’s no place to hide—except, for some, in a sort of willful ignorance. Yet that refuge will only be temporary.

But it’s also a great time, as Baker’s book illustrates. For people like Ferrucci and his team, the frontiers of science are more welcoming than ever before. And, because the systems of the world are is increasingly instrumented, interconnected and intelligent, there are abundant opportunities to use science and innovation to improve the way the world works. So our species has the potential to reinvent not only ourselves but our planet. Fortunately, as machines get smarter, so can we.

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