Evolution News and Views (ENV) provides original reporting and analysis about the debate over intelligent design and evolution, including breaking news about scientific research.

Evolution News and Views
Culture and Ethics NEWS

Should We Fear the Rise of 'Intelligent' Computers?

Philosopher Jay Richards has published an interesting piece about IBM's Watson computer trouncing Jeopardy champs looking at the consternation this caused for some people.

Computers are becoming more powerful at an ever-increasing rate, but will they ever become conscious? Artificial intelligence guru Ray Kurzweil thinks so and argues that someday we will "download" our software (our minds) and "upgrade" our hardware (our bodies) to become immortal. So, Richards was able to get Kurzweil to debate the issue. He edited the book Are We Spiritual Machines in which Kurzweil met his critics, including several Discovery Institute Fellows, and debated: "What does it mean to be human?" With the rise of Watson, the question is just as intriguing as ever.

Richards writing at the AEI blog The American says:

In case you haven't heard, the newest champion of "Jeopardy!," the popular TV game show, is a computer. Watson, an enormous computer developed by researchers at IBM, was pitted against the two previous human champions, Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. At the end of the first round, aired on Valentine's Day, Jennings and Watson were tied for first place. But Watson trounced both humans in the next round, despite making some odd mistakes. And he won the second game, aired on February 16, suggesting the first victory was more than just beginner's luck.

When the IBM computer Deep Blue beat chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, it was not doing anything qualitatively different from an ordinary calculator. It was just calculating really quickly--running through all the possible chess moves in response to the previous move by Kasparov and picking the one most likely to succeed. That's just the sort of problem that a fast-enough computer running the right algorithm was bound to solve.

In the years since then, computers have gotten much better at accomplishing well-defined tasks. We experience it every time we use Google. Something happens--"weak" artificial intelligence--that mimics the action of an intelligent agent. But the Holy Grail of artificial intelligence (AI) has always been human language. Because contexts and reference frames change constantly in ordinary life, speaking human language, like playing "Jeopardy!," is not easily reducible to an algorithm.

In "Jeopardy!," a "question"? may be historical, scientific, literary, or artistic. It may employ a pun, or require a contestant to think of a word that rhymes with another word that is not mentioned in the question. To succeed, you need something like mastery of language. Even the best computers haven't come close to mastering the linguistic flexibility of human beings in ordinary life--until now. Although Watson is still quite limited by human standards--it makes weird mistakes, can't make you a latte, or carry on an engaging conversation--it seems far more intelligent than anything we've yet encountered from the world of computers.

In a test round of "Jeopardy!," for instance, the host gave this answer: "Barack's Andean pack animals." Watson came up with the right question almost instantly: "What is Obama's llamas?" We're getting a glimmer of the day when a computer could pass the "Turing Test," that is, when an interrogating judge won't be able to distinguish between a computer and a human being hidden behind a curtain.

Read the full article at The American.

You might also be interested to hear Richard's discuss what Watson means for intelligent design over at ID The Future.