Editorial

"What is Global Thermonuclear War?" Why Watson isn't Skynet

As Watson utterly destroyed Jeopardy’s two reigning human champions at their own game, the tech world applauded IBM’s creation, but the applause was tempered by an almost palpable sense of anxiety. It’s that looking-over-the-precipice feeling you get when you see something that has the possibility of changing the world, but you’re not sure if that change will be beneficial. As Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter tried helplessly to at least make their combined winnings match that of Watson’s (they failed to do even this), one word reverberated throughout the Webosphere like a hushed premonition of the ides of March: Skynet.

Skynet is the digital villain in the popular storyline of Terminator that was built by the government to protect its citizens from foreign attack, and instead becomes self-aware and turns on humankind as it attempts to deactivate the rogue software. The AI decided that all humankind was considered a threat, and used the US’s nuclear arsenal to unleash a nuclear war on the world, annihilating the vast majority of the population. When faced with such a creepily powerful artificial intelligence in a game of Jeopardy, where it seems to be solving natural language problems faster than a human can, the first thought of the tech world was understandably, “Uh-Oh.”

However, as twistedly romantic as it is to imagine a scenario like that actually occurring as a result of IBM’s research, the truth is that all the pessimists are faced with the slippery slope logical fallacy. The idea of a “Skynet” scenario is extremely far removed from the reality of what IBM has actually accomplished, and it is unfair to overshadow the amazing possibilities that Watson brings to the table with a slippery slope argument that has numerous flaws. Here are 5 reasons why Watson is not Skynet:

Watson is a search tool – Granted, it’s a search tool on steroids, but all Watson is at its core is a group of algorithms that gets applied to a massive database of searchable data sources, albeit in creative and innovative ways. It uses massively parallel computing to apply proprietary IBM natural language parsing and searching algorithms to a vast body of what IBM calls “as-is” text. “As-is” includes current dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other publications to build the source of data that Watson can search. It is entirely self-contained in that Watson cannot glean information from anything other than the specifically structured data that the IBM has fed it. Being afraid of this aspect of the Watson project is akin to being afraid of Google’s search algorithms. In the end, it is simply searching a discrete set of data for an answer, and determining a confidence level that it’s the correct one.

Self-Unaware – The key component to a doomsday scenario spelled out in the Terminator world is the idea of self-awareness. Self-awareness is the idea that something knows that it exists. In science fiction, the consequences of an inanimate object becoming self-aware is that sees itself as an individual as much as a regular human would, going so far as to defend itself when attacked. Another key component is that it is able to formulate knowledge regardless of what its written code tells it to formulate. In other words, it thinks for itself. Any scenario that involves a situation of self-awareness would not include basic search and parse algorithms and a static data source of just text. It’s not even close to the same thing.

Only plays Jeopardy – At least in its current incarnation, Watson was designed to do one thing: play Jeopardy. Many of its algorithms and risk analysis processes are based on the rules and flow of the game of Jeopardy. It uses categories to build confidences, it wagers based its own standing and the standings of the two opponents, and it even knows to answer questions in question form. It is a single-purpose machine, and only the underlying technology can be used to adapt it to other environments. The implementation is only useful for game shows; it can’t annihilate civilization in a global nuclear winter just yet.

Data, Information, Knowledge, Understanding, Wisdom – Systems Thinking posits that there are different kinds of data, and this applies to both humans and computers. Data is raw symbols. It means nothing in and of itself, and is just there to be read. Information is what happens when relational connections are made between data points to create something that may or may not give meaning to data. Knowledge is the application of information to suit some purpose. Memorization of a multiplication table is knowledge. It is a useful implementation of information, but it is missing a key function. It lacks understanding. Understanding is when you can use knowledge to create more knowledge. In the multiplication table example, of you understand that 2 *2 = 4, and not just know it, you can also deduce that 20 * 20 = 400, even though it isn’t in the actual multiplication table. Understanding is where Artificial Intelligence has a home. It tried to find ways to make computers understand knowledge so they can make further knowledge without human assistance. Wisdom is a uniquely human trait, and it relies on non-linear, non-deterministic trains of thought to arrive at conclusions. This is where moral right and wrong as well as any emotional decisions are determined, and this is where the ultimate difference between a human and the most advanced AI will always be. Until science can begin to understand the mechanisms of wisdom and consciousness, computers will not replace humans in any meaningful way.

It wasn’t a blowout – In the excitement surrounding Watson’s trouncing victory, the accomplishments of Jennings and Rutter are unfairly overshadowed. In the face of the one of the most powerful AIs known to mankind, two humans actually accumulated some points. They may not have won (not by a long shot), but the Jeopardy demonstrated two important things: 1) Supercomputers are wrong sometimes, 2) Humans were able to beat a massively parallel supercomputer in a game of analytical speed at some points. I find that pretty awesome.

Ultimately, it’s vastly more important to focus on the advantages that Watson can potentially bring to civilization than to dwell on science fiction doomsday scenarios. The reality is that the natural language data mining technology in Watson could be a life-saver in the world of medicine. With every medical journal, every textbook, and every clinical trial in its array of data, Watson could become the ultimate diagnostic tool. Used as an Internet search tool, Watson could beat Wolfram Alpha at its own data mining game. The key difference between Watson and other supercomputers is its ability to parse natural language, and this is where any future application of IBM’s DeepQA technology is going to go.

Watson isn’t going to become Skynet anytime soon. We should be focusing on the huge potential and applications this technology promises to deliver and not worrying about science fiction doomsday scenarios that are as unrealistic as the works of fiction they spawned from.

IBM researchers will be the first to tell you that they have big plans for the tech, and those plans are certainly not world domination (at least not yet...).

Sources: IBM, Systems-thinking.org

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34 Comments

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Self-awareness is the idea that something knows that it exists.

I think it would quite be easy to achieve. All robot needs to do is to recognize its own parts, separate its boundaries from environment and defend these boundaries. I don't think that there is something mystical in understanding "Me" or "I". "I think, therefore I am" also applies to computers. It won't be hard even to add things like pain (hardwired event which starts automatically and independently from receptors which robot tries to avoid at all costs). Humans/animals had these things added by Evolution. I am sure we can "copy" them .

"but the applause was tempered by an almost palpable sense of anxiety."
I highly doubt there was any anxiety.
And i doubt anyone in the tech world was thinking a skynet doomsday. (Other than the fact that they were aware of the movie and probably referenced it because of said movie)

Sigh. Every time I see something about AI, everyone mentions Skynet. Though I gotta give Tzvi credit he checked why Skynet 'turned' on us in franchise. We struck first, and skynet defended its self like any self aware being would. If you threatened a tiger off and it attacked would you not blame it? Course not, its looking to protect its self. In the film Skynet took the only logical action it knew. Even if it stopped the US Gov would it stop there? No, probably not the UN would then try stop it, so take out the human races ability to kill it.

Its a computer at its core and we all know computers are logical by design and doesnt under stand ethics or philosophy which are human creations that don't translate to logic.

On the flip side we would only consider it a machine gone rogue, not a self aware being that when threatened will try to defend its self with whats within reach.

Personally I think all AI development should cease considering that when the time comes we actually create one, are we really ready to live with what we have made? I mean come on look at the world we live in now, the human race has a pretty poor track record when it comes to sharing this planet with ourselves let alone an race of machines.

Its a case of just because we can doesn't mean we should.

Master1 said,
The article is right! Watson is not Skynet. It's the PRECURSOR to Skynet!!!

Skynet will be born when Google and Facebook code merge and assumes control of a hacked Playstation Network.

Oh the Skynet comparison again....
We will never know if a computer is self-aware. You can ask it but you dont know if it really is self-aware or just programmed to say yes. Hell i dont even know if you guys are self-aware

What? People actually thought that it was like skynet? Wasn't it obvious that it was just a humorous comparison?

Well, the Apocalypse may be illustrating the uprise of computers perhaps?
Google it... obviously, no one can predict when the Apocalypse, but computers one day will make it it so "no one without the mark (or mobile device strapped to their wrist) could trade..." or something like that...

We have nothing to worry about from a computer that can only answer questions based on facts it's already been told. Until a computer is wholly and independently capable of learning and of building a more advanced version of itself, Judgment Day isn't going to happen for a while.

can it run crisys?! think not ....

does it run windows?! think not

therefore, by the above 2, it cannot and will not be Skynet (because google will not let it and Chuck of course)

zeta_immersion said,
can it run crisys?! think not ....

does it run windows?! think not

therefore, by the above 2, it cannot and will not be Skynet (because google will not let it and Chuck of course)

Chuck FTW..
What if Google makes a very large and sophisticated Android that takes over the world?

presence06 said,

Chuck FTW..
What if Google makes a very large and sophisticated Android that takes over the world?

that wont happen.... the Android would spend 99% of its say "searching" for something to do

neufuse said,

that wont happen.... the Android would spend 99% of its say "searching" for something to do

err "day" why wont neowin let me edit posts anymore?

neufuse said,

err "day" why wont neowin let me edit posts anymore?

Are you referring to the GPS issues or what? lol I'm lost..


NVM.. i got it... that's lame

It would stomp... APPLES..

Edited by presence06, Feb 18 2011, 9:26pm :

It would be more like this:
Microsoft supercomputer: I can't do it now but dw soon I will be able to win!
Android supercomputer: oh I can do this with ease only problem is you need the new firmware that was released between the time I was made to now!
Apple supercomputer: I am far too superior to rule the world, besides most information I'm learning from the Internet is in some foreign format called flash and I don't know how to read that!

And finally the Nokia supercomputer: Screw this we are joining Microsoft! Two underdogs better than one right?

We'll all be robots soon. Brains are now grown in labs and robotic arms and other organs.

Where's the Terminator gunna be when **** really hits the Fan?

presence06 said,
We'll all be robots soon. Brains are now grown in labs and robotic arms and other organs.

Where's the Terminator gunna be when **** really hits the Fan?

So, we'll be our own humanoid Cylons...

Fred Derf said,
Are you kidding? Watson can see the future! He's already predicted that, in the future, Toronto will be a U.S. City.

Uh Toronto is already a US city, In the United States, there is Torontos in Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota, and Texas... so technically the town is in the USA, it just fall completly in the scope of the question, and one of them does have two airports.. but the question wasn't formulated in a way it could decide the correct answer with confidance... for some reason it took a low statistical answer as its final answer.... it is a alpha product, so expect bugs

neufuse said,

Uh Toronto is already a US city, In the United States, there is Torontos in Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota, and Texas... so technically the town is in the USA, it just fall completly in the scope of the question, and one of them does have two airports.. but the question wasn't formulated in a way it could decide the correct answer with confidance... for some reason it took a low statistical answer as its final answer.... it is a alpha product, so expect bugs

Not denying the fact that there does exist other Torontos in the US (although I didn't know one of them had an airport until now), but - and people outside Canada probably won't know at first, so I forgive you - I'm guessing Fred was joking in two ways:

- Tongue in cheek reference to the rest of Canada's perception that Toronto is the most Americanized city in Canada
- Our centre of the universe attitude

neufuse said,

Uh Toronto is already a US city, In the United States, there is Torontos in Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota, and Texas... so technically the town is in the USA, it just fall completly in the scope of the question, and one of them does have two airports.. but the question wasn't formulated in a way it could decide the correct answer with confidance... for some reason it took a low statistical answer as its final answer.... it is a alpha product, so expect bugs
While you are correct, the Toronto Watson was referring to WAS Toronto, Canada. Watson doesn't use the category pof the question to find the answer

Didn't it take 4 hours to film due to reboots / getting watson back online?
Not saying this distracts from the achievement.