Watson Wins Jeopardy! — and Let Us Now Praise Sin, Forgetfulness, and Waste
March 1, 2011 5 Comments
What does it mean that the new Jeopardy! champion is a machine? Watson, an IBM computer, beat the two reigning human Jeopardy! champions (which, by the way, was a significantly greater achievement than a computer beating a chess master–IBM’s Deep Blue 3-1/2 – Kasparov 2-1/2, May 1997–because Jeopardy! requires not merely mastery of rules and data but of language, and its diabolical ambiguities).
Are we now a little closer to The Terminator domination of the machines — or worse, The Matrix deception and enslavement of humans?
No. We humans have three glorious things machines don’t: sin, forgetfulness and waste. Moreover, we have agonizing consciousness of each of these. Machines will never best us — apes, maybe, but not machines.
An aside: we also have Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics, which, with appropriate programming, would have averted the fascinating horrors of The Terminator and The Matrix:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
But on to our best qualities.
The world’s great religions testify to our obsession with sin as a species for many millennia. I’m against sin, to be sure, but step back a moment and consider what the possibility of “sin” means for humans versus machines. We trade total freedom for the protections of enforceable laws and rules. But humans, unlike machines, routinely break laws and rules — sometimes criminally, sometimes humanely. If my wife is in labor, the speed limit is no matter. If a child is imperiled in an intersection, the jaywalking law is no matter. We might lie to protect ourselves or we might lie to protect someone else. We might kill for a selfish purpose, or we might kill to protect someone in unjust peril. We might steal to enrich ourselves or we might steal to avert a grave injustice. The morality of our conduct is always debatable because our human relationship to laws and rules is vastly ambiguous.
We think we can keep tweaking the rules and keep up with human ingenuity, but we can’t. We just end up with massively complex and onerous rules (e.g., the Internal Revenue Code). As Stanley Fish says, “you can never add enough; the proliferation of circumstances always outruns the efforts to take account of them, and after a while you’ve reached the point when every situation will require a rewriting of the rule, which means that there will no longer be a rule at all.”
The possibility of egregious sin is also the possibility of inspired human victory. Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru scenario was an infamous no-win scenario in the curriculum for command-track cadets at Starfleet Academy. Jim Kirk cheated and won, became legendary, and achieved many great 23rd century things. Our pop culture is full of sin, of human ingenuity, of achievements no machine can match because it has no possibility and no consciousness of sin.
Prions are nasty proteins, responsible for untreatable and fatal diseases, such as mad cow disease. It happens that prions, in their more normal protein state, may also contribute to long-term memory. How marvelously, disastrously human is that? A protein switched one way or the other yields fatal madness or fair memory.
Machines have none of this organic ambiguity, none of this possibility that could yield either death or richer understanding. Moreover, machines never forget.
I’ve often wondered what it might be like to have perfect memory. I don’t mean a photographic memory. I mean a perfect memory of every perception ever experienced — the inability to forget.
We forget so that we know ourselves a little less, and persist with a measure of joy in life despite ourselves. We do tiny good things with our loved ones, in our communities, with occasional strangers, because our self-image is not burdened overmuch by remembering who we are.
Stripped of forgetting, recalling with perfect clarity every sin, delusion, arrogance, every misspoken word and misbegotten certainty, we would do nothing but apologize. We would cease to be useful.
Historians routinely find multiple defects in great people of the past. Now imagine if these great people were afflicted with a perfect understanding of their defects. Imagine, for example, if Thomas Jefferson understood with perfect unforgettable clarity every defect of his character and personality — would he have nevertheless been a great statesman? No. The knowledge, the inability to forget, would have been crippling. He would have spent his days begging forgiveness. And neither the Declaration of Independence nor America would ever have happened.
A machine in Thomas Jefferson’s place would have calculated the odds of a successful American revolution at close to zero and sought accommodation with the British. Thomas Jefferson, being human, could imagine himself, forgetfully, far better than he was, and only therefore imagine our inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
And the rest is history.
The Human Genome Project confirmed that the vast majority — over 95% — of human DNA is junk. The spectacular freedom of our most important molecule yields, as it develops, the vastly complex marvel of humanity — and mostly clutter. It is, it seems, this junk-producing capacity that makes us possible. We are mostly junk, therefore we are.
If life, if all reality, dwells precariously on a probability curve, then the best banking odds are on the molecule that generates the greatest number of possibilities — most of which will be junk. We’re a mind-boggling possibility that happened within a fertile ferment of possibilities, most of which were junk. And our organizing molecule is essentially disorganized, anarchic, and therefore capable of near infinite diversity.
That’s why we’re all different. We’re each a sublimely unique experiment in possibility.
Machines don’t do junk, unless they are pointlessly programmed to do so. Machines operate according to rules and formulas. Machines have no interest in possibility, much less in junk. Machines are a finite set of decision-tree outcomes. Humans are an infinite set of junk-producing possibilities, a tiny few of which will be sublime.
Possibility defines our superiority. Sin, forgetfulness, and waste make our possibility possible.