Monday, February 14, 2011

Thoughts on IBM Computer v. Jeopardy Champs

IBM v. Jeopardy

I was amazed as I watched the PBS Nova program about how IBM has built a computer named “Watson” to play against Jeopardy champions, starting tonight.

The program followed advancements in artificial intelligence, competitions in chess, which is essentially entirely mathematical, and then the challenge of Jeopardy, where the “questions” are really answers and are filled with tricky language and idioms that are meaningful to humans but very difficult for a machine to “understand.”

The program describes how the IBM programming team solved various stages of the problem getting Watson to be able to process greater and greater levels of nuance and meaning. Some of the issues involved having the machine be able to “hear” the incorrect answers of other contestants so it doesn’t repeat their mistakes, and learning a strategy for wagering on Final Jeopardy.

The big realization is that the computer never really understands anything.

Computer “gets” nuance by performing incredibly complex searches through data, and it plays chess by analyzing a greater set of probabilities mathematically than a human can, but in both cases, what is apparent from these incredible feats is not what it can do, but what it isn’t capable of remotely doing – which is living as a natural organic life form.

While the human contestants on Jeopardy also have a huge processing unit in their brains, they are competing using their feelings, sensations and emotions, all of which are crystallized in their grasp of he language that represents reality in human terms.

Watson is using this language entirely differently, but performing calculations and searches on words and never really “taking in” the meaning.

To me, there are two aspects of this experience that are significant.

First, the human achievement of simulating language and human understanding is incredible, rivaling perhaps going to the moon, building the Internet or decoding the genome.

But Watson defeats its human competitors through brute data processing power and technology, reminding us in the process that our own logical mind is not the entirety of what we are—as authors like Eckhart Tolle point out to us when they suggest meditation to notice that our thoughts are only part of who or what we are.

Actual organic life, of which we are a part, is a vibrant expression of sensation and feelings including love, compassion, and a myriad of other emotions, all of which the human Jeopardy contestants call upon to understand the questions in the contest. Their processing of the information is slower than Watson, but their grasp of the meaning is infinitely deeper.

This should serve to remind us that what we are a part of, and what we take for granted as we worship at the altar of science and technology, is infinitely more complex and alive than the machines we create in our image.

Neuroscience, biology and quantum physics are only beginning to penetrate the previously unknowable boundaries of what life is.

In their hubris, scientists have suggested that they have created life by manufacturing DNA, but they have inserted the DNA into organic cells that were already energetic with whatever it is that animates ordinary matter as organic – call it spirit or what have you.

Watson for all of its mathematical power doesn’t have it.

Even the simplest life form does. My cat is connected to existence and the universe in a way Watson never will be. It understands a great deal of my behavior and possibly some of my language with its body, sense and perhaps intuition.

When we examine the complexity of our DNA and see that it works on the same principles as a computer—capable of being decoded symbolically—it suggests at least to me that there is also an intelligence at work within the very nature of life. And perhaps our development of computers, programming software like that which “animates” Watson, is a resonance with whatever it is (spirit, mind, energy) that is behind existence itself.

At its most basic the intention of life is simply to be--and to survive. That is the programming explained by Darwin in his theory of natural selection and evolution.

It is the belief of some scientists like Bruce Lipton, the author of Biology of Belief, that human evolution is the process of life becoming more conscious of a higher purpose through our own growth both individually and collectively. Perhaps technology itself and projects like Watson are lessons along that path, which may serve to hopefully educate us enough to evolve and survive as a species rather than use that same technology to make ourselves extinct.

The ultimate source of our own programming may not care whether the human expression of life survives or not—it may well have infinite variety of life forms to experience itself through.

Up until recently the concept of a higher intelligence has been the province of religion which has named it God, or perhaps science fiction.

Science has avoided this area for lack of evidence; and even the creation of a Watson does not speak to higher intelligence, except for the humans who programmed it to perform its incredible calculations.

But as we watch Watson compete against humans on Jeopardy we might get a vague sense that what Watson is showing us, and which we take for granted moment to moment, is precisely what Watson is NOT, and what we ARE – sensory beings capable of some of Watson’s processing power but also infinitely more in terms of love, touch, wisdom, grace and community.

Watson might win Final Jeopardy one or more of these nights, but it will never sense itself as alive. It will never have the capacity to connect to the source of its being on an organic level, because it is not a being but a thing.

I believe that this is at the root of much of the despair and isolation that people feel as they are literally overwhelmed and consumed by technology that seems to be its own reward, continually “upgrading” to achieve a level of perfection that can only come by being natural and human.

In my own life technology has reconnected me to many old friends and given me the means to pursue many human endeavors—in that way it has been immensely empowering. But I have to be careful that the allure of technology does not also make me deadened to what truly makes me human, and disconnect me from the very source of my humanity—my connection to a higher power—and perhaps my soul.

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