Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ask, and Understand

I didn't watch the recent man vs. machine series on Jeopardy! this past week, so all the information I'm getting about how IBM's Watson crushed its human competitors has been filtered through other sources - but that's okay. The most fundamental thing that we should take from this is that clear-language interaction with computers - something that's been a staple of science fiction for decades - has taken a huge step toward reality, despite speedbumps such as answering "Toronto" in a Final Jeopardy category about United States cities. Watson wasn't fooled by the wordplay and the back-and-forth; it was able to to pierce through the doubletalk and understand what was being asked of it.

That bears repeating: a computer program that understands something. There are plenty of people who think that this is just a dim shadow of what's waiting for us in the very near future. As potentially world-shaking as the Singularity could be, supposing that we ever agree on how to define the damn thing and then it actually happens, that's not one of the implications of Watson's victory that I've been thinking about much.

Specifically, the social implications of people having access to individual question-answerer programs. What if, in ten years, every smartphone literally is a smart phone, and comes equipped with a descendant of Watson that can answer any question you ask of it so long as it has sufficient time to poke around for answers on the internet? Considering the pace of development over the last ten years, I would not be surprised for the phones of 2021 to function as oracles as well.

But what does this do to people? Consider the modern day - how often do you encounter stories of people driving themselves into ditches, or into farmers' fields, or into an illegal turn across multiple lanes of traffic because their GPS told them to, and they obeyed it without question? Let's be honest... critical thinking isn't exactly part of the school curriculum in North America at least, and there are plenty of people out there who don't know how to think think. People have always wanted easy answers. What's going to happen when it's as easy as asking your phone when you've got a burning question, and uncritically accepting whatever it flings back at you as the truth?

One thing I'll always remember about school is that research is difficult. It's hard to find good and appropriate sources, to sort through those sources, to figure out what material you need and to identify biases in the text and distill it down so you can answer the question in front of you. For me, the research phase of an essay took weeks - and that was even without waiting for worthwhile sources to get there through interlibrary loan. Consider how many people would leap at the opportunity to skip all that effort - hell, it's practically what we see now, with some students shamelessly cribbing from Wikipedia articles, or going whole hog and buying essays from mills. Who cares about understanding the answer, so long as you have it?

Understanding is the key. An answered question is worthless unless you know what the answer means. As our computers become more and more sophisticated and capable of interacting with us on more meaningful levels, we need to take care that we avoid falling into the trap of complacency - of working toward a world where our computers understand its workings better than we do.

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