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In the Year 9595

Why the singularity is not near,
but hope springs eternal
magazine cover

Watson is the IBM computer built by David Ferrucci and his team of 25 research scientists tasked with designing an artificial intelligence (AI) system that can rival human champions at the game of Jeopardy. After beating the greatest Jeopardy champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, in February 2011, the computer is now being employed in more practical tasks such as answering diagnostic medical questions.

I have a question: Does Watson know that it won Jeopardy? Did it think, “Oh, yeah! I beat the great Ken Jen!”? In other words, did Watson feel flushed with pride after its victory? This has been my standard response when someone asks me about the great human-versus-machine Jeopardy shoot-out; people always respond in the negative, understanding that such self-awareness is not yet the province of computers. So I put the line of inquiry to none other than Ferrucci at a recent conference. His answer surprised me: “Yes, Watson knows it won Jeopardy.” I was skeptical: How can that be, since such self-awareness is not yet possible in computers? “Because I told it that it won,” he replied with a wry smile.

Of course. You could even program Watson to vocalize a Howard Dean–like victory scream, but that is still a far cry from its feeling triumphant. That level of self-awareness in computers, and the time when it might be achieved, was a common theme at the Singularity Summit held in New York City on the weekend of October 15–16, 2011. There hundreds of singularitarians gathered to be apprised of our progress toward the date of 2045, set by visionary computer scientist Ray Kurzweil as being when computer intelligence will exceed that of all humanity by one billion times, humans will realize immortality, and technological change will be so rapid and profound that we will witness an intellectual event horizon beyond which, like its astronomical black hole namesake, life is not the same. (continue reading…)

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