I'll Take "Corporate Stiffs on Cheesy Sets" for $200

By Malcolm MacIver | February 17, 2011 12:35 pm

Was it just me, or was their something faintly bizarre about yesterday’s historical ass whooping of man by machine? Maybe it was Brad Rutter’s increasingly frantic swaying as Watson took his lead and asked for yet another clue in its stilted, strangely mis-timed way. Perhaps it was the effect of the last corporate stiff of the event – in front of a stone wall backdrop that seemed a parody of cheesy corporate décor – telling us where Watson’s winnings will go, all while speaking with a monotone that would make Al Gore jealous. Or maybe it was Alex Trebek’s nonchalance after the historic event as he immediately turned his attention to pitching the next day’s all-teen tournament. Somehow I expected balloons and confetti to descend from the ceiling, maybe with the voice of Hal in the background—“I’m sorry Ken, but you were really improving from your performance yesterday. Would you mind taking out the garbage?” The most important intelligence test of machine versus man in decades sails by with hardly the rattle of a plastic fern.

Besides the very impressive technical achievement of Watson, IBM should be congratulated for managing to turn three episodes of Jeopardy! into a three-episode-long infomercial for their brand. We saw breathless executives tell us how Watson was a real game-changer for medicine, genomics, and spiky hairdos for avatars. We saw the lead engineers puzzling over mathematical squiggles written on staggered layers of sliding glass panels (something we’ve seen in an Intel commercial before when it was necessary for a visual joke to work, and so obviously useless for doing real work that it seems an insult to viewers in this context).

The overall feel of the event was highly corporate. Alex Trebek channeled Mikael Blomquist’s obsessiveness over computer model names as he explained how Watson’s brain was a massive cluster composed of several cabinets of IBM Power 750 Servers. I wondered how many takes it took for him to get the spiel down. Amidst the heavily rehearsed corporate messaging, we did get some nuggets of interesting information, like how Watson was initially dumb to gender before, as one of the researchers put it, “it got the gender module.” I’m fairly confident this came in the form of a small cheesecloth bag of genetically modified goat genitalia inserted into the head node of the aforementioned Power Server cluster.

February 16, 2011, will go down in history as the date of a very important milestone in artificial intelligence. As I blogged about earlier, in reaching a machine with the kind of intelligence we want, having goal posts that are at points short of that is extremely helpful, and The Jeopardy Test seems to fit the bill. Beating the human Jeopardy-savants on Wednesday was at turns dramatic and eerie. I think IBM has a major achievement on its hands. I just wish the whole thing had been done with a bit more of a sense of humor, and a bit less gratuitous corporate messaging.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Artificial Intelligence, Cyborgs, TV

Comments (11)

  1. FoxtrotCharlie

    Presumably the real achievement here is not Watson’s encyclopedic knowledge (it’s basically a self-enclosed Google), but it’s ability to interpret the answers and find the questions? I guess it’s important but it’s such a baby step in a culture used to super A.I. depicted in movies like the Terminator or sophisticated androids like the one in “Alien” that I’m not surprised it doesn’t get much attention. I’ll be frank, I’m not really overwhelmed myself. Probably because all of this massive effort still requires such enormous computing power. I’ll be more impressed when you can do something like this on a portable platform… say a laptop.

    Also, there are many many MANY more steps yet to go. It’s not just the Turing test, but these intuitive leaps of logic that A.I so severely lack. Chess is famous for Deep Blue but it doesn’t mean machines are smarter than man. A Chess variant (the name escapes me) turns most of the pieces into animals and creates “pits” on the board. You have to “push” pieces into the pits to capture them. You also move four pieces at a time. Needless to say, A.I. has been badly stumped to play this variant, simply because the permutations for brute force position evaluation and calculation are just too much.

  2. TerryS.

    I quote: “…came in the form of a small cheesecloth bag of genetically modified goat genitalia inserted into the head node of the aforementioned Power Server cluster.”

    Having a bad day Malcolm? Was that smarmy statement really necessary? Actually, the tone of the whole blog entry was quite offensive.

    Just my two-cents worth.

  3. felix

    Watson seems to be very similar to Google search on a static database. So what’s really amazing IMO is that anyone with an internet connection has instant access to this AI.

  4. Malcolm MacIver

    @FoxtrotCharlie: Yes, absolutely, the breakthrough here is in the segmentation of the question. Once that’s clear — and it can be arbitrarily difficult if word play and ambiguity are present — then you’re right, it’s a reasonably doable search process.

    I’d characterize what IBM did as more than a baby step – as I wrote, I believe it will go down in history as the date of a very important milestone in AI. Jeopardy is hard, and I wouldn’t have imagined – based on extant natural language processing approaches that I’m aware of – of something that would handily beat a world champion. While with many of the easy questions it looked like Watson only beat the humans because they couldn’t hit the buzzer fast enough, there were quite tough ones that it did very well with as well.

    My issue was with regard to the PR aspects only. The scientists and engineers behind the work are first rate, and what they’ve accomplished is really impressive. It would be great to know more of the technical details, but I imagine they won’t be revealing too much until things have been patented, if then.

    @TerryS – thanks for your feedback. Offending readers was not what I had in mind, but instead some reaction on whether the unrelenting IBM PR and commercialism through the episodes was as dreadful as I felt it was. In your case, it seems I failed.

  5. It would be great to know more of the technical details

    There are some here, via http://sciencehouse.wordpress.com

  6. Aaawwwww… silly “anti-spam”!

    It would be great to know more of the technical details

    There are some here

  7. Jillinthebox

    I thought the whole thing was amazing.
    I agree with Malcolm, the IMB commercialization of it all seemed odd, but perhaps a necessary evil. This type of research is not cheap and a little self indulgent promotion never hurt any scientific endeavor. Besides the Jeopardy challenge was just a gimmick to begin with, what did you expect?

  8. Malcolm MacIver

    @Kevembuangga – thanks (was your second link the same as the first?) Langford mentions that the technical papers will come out in the summer. But, as far as I can tell, other than a general description of the component technologies we won’t know the details until then. Langford also makes this comment: “For a random person, this might seem evidence of serious machine intelligence, while for people working on the system itself, it probably seems like a reasonably good assemblage of existing technologies with several twists to make the entire system work.” It’s almost certainly the latter. If they had a new algorithm we’d probably have heard it mentioned. But, and I say this from years of of struggling with baroquely complex animal nervous systems and biomechanics, I expect a machine that eventually reaches the designation of “intelligent” to be an enormous inelegant collection of hacks.

    @Jillinthebox – absolutely – IBM (or IMB!) deserves to promote this and some advertising for their brand during the show would have been appropriate. How much and the manner it was done in counts for a lot. It’s like a bunch of ad execs who usually sell mainframes to big institutions were trying hard to reach a different demographic. So it seemed stiff in manner. And there was just much too much of it. In beating humans at one of their favorite games (and by clear implication, besting them at one, albeit limited, type of intelligence), a little more restraint on tooting the horn of the company that did it would have been better.

  9. My Mom’s response at the end of the program was this. Imagine a 70 year old black woman as you read the lines. “That dirty Watson just pretended not to get final Jeopardy, so we don’t feel that bad when his ass takes over everything.” My Mom saw the entire program as a introduction to the Terminator reality she has been preparing for over the last 20 years. I felt at the end it was a much to do about nothing. But I know for people who may not be use to seeing AI, in movies, comics, this blog, etc. Watson was their introduction. The problem is, I don’t know how they received him. Other than my Mother’s Sarah Connor like cry of war over the machines, I really don’t know how people who are not really into this sort of thing felt about the introduction. Now my parents are afraid Watson will become their future Doctors. I wonder how many other people feel this sense of paranoia about the event?

  10. @Malcolm MacIver – Sorry I screwed the link, a PDF can be found at Carson Chow’s blog “A description of the strategy and algorithms…”.

    @Angelisa Josalisa – It is indeed very unfortunate that the general public is seeded with uncalled-for fear and paranoia by the Singularitarians and their ilk (Wired, Bill Joy, etc…).
    To find more reasonable views Google for “nick szabo singularity” (cannot put two links in the same comment on pain of “spam” deletion :-( )

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