The Yiddish novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote that a knife could be used either to cut bread or kill. There is nothing inherently good or bad about a knife. It is simply a tool used by human beings, for better of worse.
In this way computers are like knives. For example, they have made possible the wave of democratic revolt sweeping across the Arab world. But computers also have given unprecedented power to the government and police. While it is it is good to see that the emperor often has no clothes, it isn’t so good that the emperor sees us without our clothes.
I think about this as I watched for the last couple of nights an epoch-making event, one that for me was as momentous as men landing on the moon. Here was Watson, the IBM computer, competing on the TV game show Jeopardy against two former champions. It didn’t take long to recognize the inevitable and awe to set in. That Watson was going to win was clear at the end of the first day; it was quicker to the buzzer than humans could possibly be and it had a computer’s store of facts at its circuit tips.
The amazing part, though, wasn’t Watson’s speed at spitting out facts or calculating moves. After all, the Internet gives everyone instant access to the world’s facts, and computers have been humans at chess for some time. What is new and amazing is that Watson was responding to complex speech and answering appropriately in the form of a question. Jeopardy’s questions require a facility with words that until now were believed to be a uniquely human trait.
A language-based computer is startling. It is hard to think of Watson as dumb; what it exhibited is something very close to thought.
In the near future, Watson will probably have a profound effect in the workplace, replacing many jobs with this new machine. The impact on medicine will be tremendous, I think, allowing physicians to access instantly everything that is known about particular symptoms, illnesses and cures. Whether it will create new jobs for the unskilled is a huge question. What is sure is that something new is upon us and it will force upon new sets of problems and possibilities, and it will force us to think about what it means to be human in new ways.
What Watson won’t replace is ethics. Moral choices remain human choices. But the choices the Watson will confront us with will be huge and unprecedented.