Deep Blue, Watson and The Evolution of AI.

I’m not sure why but I get a little thrill every time I see something that’s been completely automated that used to require manual intervention from start to finish. It’s probably because the more automated something is the more time I have to do other things and there’s always that little thrill in watching something you built trundle along its way, even if it falls over part way through. My most recent experiment in this area was crafting the rudimentary trainer for Super Meat Boy to get me past a nigh on impossible part of the puzzle, co-ordinating the required key strokes with millisecond precision and ultimately wresting me free of the death grip that game held on me.

The world of AI is an extension of the automation idea, using machines to perform tasks that we would otherwise have to do ourselves. The concept has always fascinated me as more and more we’re seeing various forms of AI creeping their way into our everyday lives. However most people won’t recognize them as AI simply because they’re routine, but in reality many of the functions these weak AIs perform used to be in the realms of science fiction. We’re still a long way from having a strong AI like we’re used to seeing in the movies but that doesn’t mean many facets of it aren’t already in widespread use today. Most people wouldn’t think twice when a computer asks them to speak their address but going back only a few decades would see that be classed as the realms of strong AI, not the expert system it has evolved into today.

What’s even more interesting is when we create machines that are more capable than ourselves at performing certain tasks. The most notable example (thus far) of a computer be able to beat a human at a certain non-trivial task is Deep Blue, the chess playing computer that managed to beat the world chess champion Kasparov albeit under dubious circumstances. Still the chess board is a limited problem set and whilst Deep Blue was a super computer in its time today you’d find as much power hidden under the hood of your Playstation 3. IBM’s research labs have been no slouch in developing Deep Blue’s successor, and it’s quite an impressive beast.

Watson, as it has come to be known, is the next step in the evolution of AIs performing tasks that have only been in the realms of humans. The game of choice this time around is Jeopardy a gameshow who’s answers are in the form of a question and makes extensive use of puns and colloquialisms. Jeopardy represents a unique challenge to AI developers as it involves complex natural language processing, searching immense data sets and creating relationships between disparate sources of information to finally culminate in an answer. Watson can currently determine whether or not it can answer a question within a couple seconds but that’s thanks to the giant supercomputer that’s backing it up. The demonstration round showed Watson was quite capable of playing with the Jeopardy champions, winning the round quite with a considerable lead.

What really interested me in this though was the reaction from other people when I mentioned Watson to them. It seemed that a computer playing Jeopardy (and beating the human players) wasn’t really a big surprise at all, in fact it was expected. This was telling about how us humans view computers as most people expect them to be able to accomplish anything, despite the limitations that are obvious to us geeks. I’d say this has to do with the ubiquity of computers in our everyday lives and how much we use them to perform rudimentary tasks. The idea that a computer is capable of beating a human at anything isn’t a large stretch of the imagination if you treat them as mysterious black boxes but it still honestly surprised me to learn this is how many people think.

Last night saw Watson play its first real game against the Jeopardy champions and whilst it didn’t repeat its performance of the demonstration round it did tie for first place. The second round is scheduled to air sometime tomorrow (Australia time) and whilst I’ve not yet had a chance to watch the entire round I can’t tell you how excited I am to see the outcome. Either way the realm of AI has taken another step forward towards the ultimate goal of creating intelligence born not out of flesh, but silicone and whilst some might dread the prospect I for one can’t wait and will follow all developments with baited breath.

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