Watson's victory on Jeopardy! last week prompted some hand-wringing, especially because he defeated the two strongest human champions the show has ever produced. The computer's ability to decode language, and to buzz in at speeds much faster than the single blink of an eye, produced long odds for Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.
But as Brian Christian pointed out in the Atlantic, and Christopher Caldwell observed in the Financial Times, there's still a long way to go before machines supplant humans. (Ray Kurzweil can disagree all he wants, even though his Singularity movement earned some unwarranted recognition from Time recently.)
Christian wasn't writing about Watson, but rather about his participation in a Turing test in which human judges must decide whether they are exchanging instant messages with a human or a computer. Christian notes that humans often do poorly by answering questions very blandly ("How's the weather?" "Cold"), and by allowing an aggressive interrogative style--staccato question and answer--to dominate the five minute IM exchanges. If an actual conversation breaks out, the human judges have an easier time figuring out which of their conversants are humans and which are machines. The lesson is obvious, in retrospect: show some humanity, and your human-ness will be revealed.
Caldwell was writing about Watson's success on Jeopardy!, and points out that Watson remains a "parlour trick." It's a machine crammed with thousands of encyclopedias, operated on turbocharged Google search principles. Watson was able to decode the puns that lie within the questions, worrying some people that he had encroached on human's ability to understand language. But another way to look at it is that Watson had to be painstakingly programmed--by humans!--to achieve this linguistic feat.
In a way, Watson represents the high-water mark of left brain thinking. Stuff a machine with innumerable facts and a fast search function, and watch it go wild. But as Dan Pink has wisely argued, our era is headed toward precedence of the "soft skills": empathy, imagination, meaning-making. Watson doesn't hold a candle here. We shouldn't worry about losing the least impressive aspects of our humanity, which are precisely those aspects that computers will (and already are) be able to replicate with ease.
In Slate last week, Ken Jennings reflected on his experience competing with Watson. During the taping, Jennings found it jarring that all of Watson's human engineers were cheering for the machine to win. In Jennings's words, "this was to be an away game for humanity." That's a beautiful, poignant phrase, which Jennings tosses off in half a sentence. Let's see Watson do that.