Ever since I was a kid and interested in science fiction, computers and robots were presented as thinking, interactive machines, like emotionally restrained people. From Robot on "Lost in Space" to the computer on Star Trek and the literary creations of Isaac Asimov, these devices would not only communicate clearly, but express curiosity and challenge the humans who worked with them.
Alan Turing, in his 1950 paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence
, presented concepts on how machines could be said to think and some of the conditions where we could successfully say that Artificial Intelligence (AI) was working. The most memorable was where a person could have an on-line conversation with a computer and not know if they had spoken to another human or a machine. Confidentially, I've had on-line conversations with people who were indistinguishable from machines, but I don't think the test is intended to go the other way.
So, today, many people are going to gather around their television sets, or whatever the kids are using these days, to watch an IBM computer compete openly with two established champions in the quiz show Jeopardy. That's the serious game show, not like Hollywood Squares or Joker's Wild (or even the revered Price is Right). This is the show that smart people watch and play. It's the intellectual game show. This is a big deal. If this computer melts down and looks stupid there are going to be a great number of intellectuals who won't be inviting computers to parties.
Clearly they guys at Watson Research have worked with this enough that the computer is going to have a reasonable showing. I'm guessing that it won't have any trouble with the buzzer. Think about what this machine has to be able to do, though. It has to be able to hear and understand the question-- something that is beyond the ability of many human customer-support people. It has to make sense of the question and find a relative answer, something that is beyond most politicians in the world. Then it has to return that answer in the form of a question-- which actually may not be so tough; you just have to put "who is" or "what is" on the front of everything.
Personally, I think the implications of this technology are astounding. While we are years away from common usage, this opens the door to natural language queries of world knowledge. You think that you're slick with your search engine. Wait till your grandkids can just ask the wall for all of the things that they once would have asked you. Look at the potential for devices that can find you factual answers about procedures, directions and other things that demand a person's intellect simply to interpret the information correctly. Think of the potential for intelligent machine companions who can help someone take better care of themselves by interacting with them directly. This is all mind blowing. I know
that I will see some of this come to pass in my lifetime.
I don't know when or where Jeopardy comes on for you. For me it is today at 4:30 PM. The contest will run every day through Wednesday. Personally, my bet is on the humans, just because I have a hard time imagining that computers are ready to associate things better than the human mind. But if the computer makes a showing at all it will be an amazing statement on the present and future of technology.
See more about this contest at the Jeopardy web site