This week the big news in computers is Watson, IBM’s new supercomputer that took on the champions of Jeopardy, and won. And it turns out that this revolutionary new technology is yet another giant leap inspired by Star Trek. Details below.
Star Trek a ‘driving vision’ for IBM’s Watson
This week the popular TV game show Jeopardy ran a 3-day special where the two biggest Jeopardy champions took on Watson, an IBM computer built to play the game. In the end it turned out just like famed 1997 chess match when IBM’s Deep Blue beat grandmaster Garry Kasparov. Watson racked up a two-day total of $77,147 vs. Brad Rutter’s $21,600 and Ken Jennings $24,000. Here is the final segment of the 3-day special, where Watson destroys all humans.
So should we, like Ken Jennings, get ready to welcome our new computer overlords? Science fiction is full of tales of AIs going crazy or seeking to wipe out or enslave humanity. However, IBM looks to a more benign vision of future computer/human interaction, namely the one seen in Star Trek. A FAQ about Watson and the DeepQA project on the official IBM site states:
Q: Is this going to be like HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey"?
A: Not exactly. The computer on Star Trek is a more appropriate comparison. The fictional computer system may be viewed as an interactive dialog agent that could answer questions and provide precise information on any topic. A primary goal for DeepQA is to greatly improve information seeking tasks over natural language content but ultimately, we would like to see the underlying technology help make computers more effective at communicating in human terms. Watson uses the DeepQA technology to push the envelope in natural language processing and automatic question answering. A powerful and fluent conversational agent, like the Star Trek computer, is a driving vision for this work.
And in an interview about the Jeopardy project, IBM’s David Ferrucci (principal investigator for the DeepQA project) talked about Watson and how Star Trek shows the way:
Q: How do you see the Watson technology evolving and being used in other fields in the next 5 to 10 years? What are some other possible applications of this technology?
David Ferrucci: Whether it be in healthcare, medicine, technical support, finance, or government, the ability to sift through and more deeply analyze all this information and deliver it on an as-needed basis I think can really be dramatic. When you think about the Star Trek series, Captain Picard or Captain Kirk just speaking to the computer and the computer immediately has a sense of what’s the context, what is he asking me about, what are my follow-up questions, how to behave as an information-seeking tool that helps this person get at what they need rapidly through a natural language dialogue in their terms. So the user doesn’t have to figure out what the right query is. Rather the user can just start dialoguing with the computer in its own terms, in natural language, and that, I think, can ultimately have huge impact on business and society.
The real story of Watson is all about that Star Trek-like interaction, and developing a computer that can understand "natural conversation" as this IBM video explains.
Star Trek’s vision of peaceful co-existence with Computer AI
Since the beginning of Star Trek in the 1960s, the franchise has posited a future with intelligent computers interacting peacefully with their human masters. Of course Trek has had its share of cautionary tales of these computers going awry and becoming a danger, such as in the original Star Trek episode "The Ultimate Computer" seen in this clip.
However, these Star Trek computer-as-Frankenstein stories are the exception. For the most part, Star Trek through all five series and eleven movies has shown us a future where humans (and aliens) work side-by-side with computers and artificial intelligences. Although some times Star Trek’s computers did get a little frisky, as when the USS Enterprise computer got flirty in the original Star Trek episode "Tomorrow is Yesterday".
And of course, Star Trek: The Next Generation showed how it can take some teaching of AIs to understand natural language, and not take things so literally as this flashback sequence shows from the series finale.
But all in all the Star Trek AIs understand and are able to interact with the crew, answering queries and talking to the crew in natural language. Sometimes the AIs even talked to each other, as this scene from Star Trek: The Next Generation shows with Data talking to the USS Enterprise-D computer.
So Watson is a big step towards that future where we can have conversations with our computers and where they can understand us in natural language, answering nuanced queries while tapping into all of human understanding. Plus, few would be able to afford a Watson of their own, which requires a big room full of high-end IBM servers. So for now, we will continue to have to toil away on our "quaint" keyboard and mouse, just as Scotty found them when he traveled back in time to the 1980’s in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
For more on Watson visit www.ibm.com/watson