IBM’s new supercomputer hotness, named Watson after one of IBM’s co-founders, has destroyed humanity’s greatest champions in the game of Jeopardy! This is a feat accomplished with speedy perusal of an encyclopedic database and high level language parsing. One of the main challenges here was to simply understand the questions being asked, what with the goofy formatting and puns built into many Jeopardy! questions. Watson’s designers at IBM said that their goal was to create a computer that you could converse with, using normal language syntaxes a la the computer in Star Trek. This is a pretty significant step toward that goal. Next up Watson will probably be functioning as a medical computer, with vast databases of factoids and data to help doctors work better. Neat!
While this development in the field of artificial intelligence is a noteworthy mile-marker in the evolution of human technology, I wonder how soon we will see it benefit the average person. I’ve been thinking about what form it might take–probably similar to a website like wolfram alpha initially. While it would be very cool to have a computer you could play endless Q and A with, I think it’s even more fascinating to think about a potential computer that you could not just ‘converse’ with, but actually have ‘conversation’ with.
What I mean is maybe you start off talking to Watson about how you used to live on the banks of the Wisconsin river when you were a kid, but that you could never go swimming in it because of the strong undertow. Watson replies, “That’s true, I have read many news articles about people drowing in the river, usually camped out on sandbars and caught off-guard by rising water. It is a sad thing.” Then he asks a related query: “Have you ever been to Devil’s Lake State Park, nearby the Wisconsin River?” If you say yes, maybe he inquires about your favorite trails there or relates some statistics about the park. Maybe if you’ve been talking to Watson for a while, his speech syntax will ‘relax’ a bit and he’ll lead off a sentence, “Hey, man, did you ever hear…?”
If many people are all having conversations with this supercomputer, it could recall fascinating stories and jokes that people have told it. Computers are inherently a reflection of the people who have programmed them. How cool would it be if there was supercomputer that stored a massive library of experiences, emotions, and inspirations that people have shared with it? Such a machine would be a fascinating source of conversation. And the more people who talked to it, the more interesting it would become. It could learn slang, accents, and speak to individual users in ways tailored to their interests and preferences.
Imagine if this were integrated into a website where you could speak into a microphone, and it would stream a response back to you. It could be accessed from anywhere. You could get it through your cellphone. What a world that would be.
Unfortunately I think we’re a long ways away from that. If it takes a supercomputer the size of a room to play Jeopardy! imagine the computing power needed to have simultaneous conversations with thousands of people. Imagine how much conversational data it would amass. I suppose it would initially be available only to a select few, and in limited time allocations. But still, this is where AI is headed eventually, right? It’s fun to think about!