Is Our Superiority Over Computers In Jeopardy?

At some point we’re going to need to reevaluate how society benefits from technology.

In what will surely be the most watched Jeopardy series in recent memory Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter take on IBM’s Watson starting Monday evening. Man, actually men, versus machine. It’s not as easy as it seems.

Watson, a supersized array of computer processors, memory and storage, will not have access to the Internet. No googling for answers!

It will also have to make sense of Jeopardy questions (really answers) which are often punny, obscure and related to equally punny and obscure categories! In other words Watson will have to reason to derive the correct response.

Last night Helaine and I watched NOVA on PBS which had a “Making Of” hour about this challenge. It’s online and worth watching.

“I think what’s making Watson successful is its internal architecture. It’s looking at so many different algorithms—thousands of different algorithms—some of them focused on understanding the question, weighting the various terms, looking at the grammar, the syntax, finding the phrases, the keywords, the entities, the dates, the times, trying to understand what it is being asked. And this, in itself, is a big challenge, where we use a variety of different technologies. But ultimately, what’s exciting about it is how it looks at many, many different possibilities and assesses them and builds confidence in a final answer to decide whether or not it’s correct and whether or not it wants to risk buzzing in on Jeopardy!” – David Ferrucci (Research Staff Member and leader of the Semantic Analysis and Integration Department at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center)

The computer is pretty good. It’s got more than a fair chance. It very well might win. I’m worried about the implications.

It is easy to become a Luddite&#185 in matters of advancing technology. So many jobs have been eliminated by labor saving advances. From the worker’s standpoint it’s easy to think the vast majority of benefit has gone to their bosses.

Much of what’s now done by machine used to be unskilled or semiskilled labor. Robots do the manufacturing, run the elevators and route your phone calls (which are very important us). All that used to be done by people. Robots could fly our airliners if it we’d let them!

Business benefits. Former workers sit on their hands.

Now with Watson’s leap forward into reasoned intelligence the scope of which jobs will be eliminated expands.

At some point we’re going to need to reevaluate how society benefits from technology. If there’s more productivity and less human performed work to be done maybe the concept of an eight hour day, forty hour week and two weeks of vacation should be reconsidered?

Will anyone benefit if business becomes so efficient it no longer needs or pays workers? To whom will business sell?

What Watson does on Jeopardy is only the beginning.

&#185 – The Luddites were a social movement of British textile artisans in the nineteenth century who protested – often by destroying mechanised looms – against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution, which they felt were leaving them without work and changing their way of life – Wikipedia

I Worry About the Internet

I’ve been on the Internet a while. The earliest post of mine that I can find on Usenet is from 1993. Before that I was on Compuserve and The Source (neither interconnected with anything else or each other at the time).

Even that’s not my beginning. In the Commodore 64 days I used to traipse around to BBS systems, downloading programs and trading messages locally.

Over time, I have seen the Internet change, drastically.

Some of those changes are very, very good. I love to read about what’s going on, and every newspaper is online, as is every magazine. A quick search on Google News for Rosie O’Donnell brought over 1,000 current citations. The amount of raw data here is astounding. And, with applications like Google to sort what we’ve got, you can actually find the worthwhile stuff you’re looking for.

Of course, not all that you find is good. I think I mentioned a few weeks back that Harry Friedman, executive producer of Jeopardy, said they can’t use the Internet as a source of answers/questions because so much of what’s here is incorrect. And there was Pierre Salinger’s Internet based theory on TWA Flight 800. Still, with a skeptical eye, it is possible to do your best in separating the wheat from the chaff.

The killer app on the Internet seemed to be email. But, I am afraid its effectiveness is rapidly diminishing.

Personally, the amount of spam I receive is astounding. I use an incredible (and totally free) program called Popfile to move my spam to a side directory so I only see it when I’m deleting it ‘en mass’.

Popfile works by actually watching what I do or don’t consider spam. Though spam is recent, the program is based on the work of Rev. Edward Bayes who lived in the 18th century.

It took a few weeks to teach Popfile what I want. Since then, the program has been pretty close to perfect (99.54% accuracy). Unfortunately, unless it is perfect, I still have to take a quick look, lest I allow a falsely categorized spam to be deleted – unread!

Since June 24, 2003, over 60% of my email has been spam.

Actually, it’s a lot worse than that! I have some filters at my server throwing away any messages that come addressed to a few addresses that I once used, but are now only spam magnets. And, since there’s a new method in spamming which includes using your name in the subject, anything that contains “me,” also gets dumped. Those messages never make it to my home computer and I can only guess that it’s throwing away dozens every day.

As unruly as spam is, it pales in comparison to the problems we face with no verification that email is coming from the account that claims to send it. I often send work related email, with my work email address through my mail server. It neither knows or cares. Helaine’s mail goes the same way, because it’s easier when we’re on the road. Unfortunately, this is the same method spammers use when the forge the return address on the unsolicited ads you get.

In the past few weeks I have gotten a few ‘phishing’ emails, which look like official letters from PayPal or Comcast or one of any number of companies I do business with. I can recognize a ‘phishing’ email, but I’m never sure when a legit one is legit – and that’s real trouble.

We should be paying bills and ordering merchandise and conducting our affairs online. But even if we can to a limited extent now, how can we in the future? How can we be sure we’re sending mail to the right place or responding to the right website?

It’s time for people much wiser than I to figure out a new method of sending verifiable email. If we must throw out the method we use now – a method formulated by geeks who never thought the Internet would be populated by anyone other than trusted users.

As much as I hate to see this happen, we can no longer operate where mail goes anonymously. I’m not saying your mail should be readable by others, only that the recipient knows it’s from you.

And now there’s more!

Companies have started burying ‘malware’, ‘adware’, and ‘spyware’ in otherwise innocuous programs. Download a program to keep your passwords or set your computer’s clock or any one of a number of simple tasks, and you might have some program popping up ads and watching where you surf while stealing clock cycles from your computer and in some cases making it totally unstable or unusable.

I cleaned out a friend’s computer a few weeks ago and it was like the Black Hole of Calcutta in there. The computer was no longer usable because of all the unwanted operations going on.

This stuff is going to get worse before it gets better. There are two things I can guarantee will happen:

1) Some people will be driven from the Internet as their ability to use it in any meaningful way will be gone.

2) Companies will be forced to make our systems less versatile, more skeptical and closed, in order to keep this stuff of PCs. That will lead to less innovation.

Unless something is done very soon, con men, shysters and crooks will turn this wonderful idea into a cesspool. It’s already on the way.