What is a Milestone in Artificial Intelligence?

On January 13, 2011, IBM’s Watson supercomputer competed in a practice round of Jeopardy, the long-running trivia quiz show. Playing against the program’s two most successful champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, Watson won the preliminary match. Is this all a big publicity stunt? Of course it is. But it also marks a significant milestone in the development of artificial intelligence.

For decades, AI – artificial intelligence – has been pursued by computer scientists and others with greater and lesser degrees of success. Promises of Turing tests passed and human-level intelligence being achieved have routinely fallen far short. Nonetheless, there has continued to be an inexorable march toward more and ever more capable machine intelligences. In the midst of all this, IBM’s achievement in developing Watson may mark a very important turning point.

Early attempts at strong AI or artificial general intelligence (AGI) brought to light the daunting complexity of trying to emulate human intelligence. However, during the last few decades, work on weak AI – intelligence targeted to very specific domains or tasks – has met with considerably more success. As a result, today AI permeates our lives, playing a role in everything from anti-lock braking systems to warehouse stocking to electronic trading on stock exchanges. Little by little, AI has taken on roles previously performed by people and bested them in ways once unimaginable. Computer phone attendants capable of routing hundreds of calls a minute. Robot-operated warehouses that deliver items to packers in seconds. Pattern matching algorithms that pick out the correct image from among thousands in a matter of moments. But until now, nothing could compete with a human being when it came to general knowledge about the world.

True, these human champions may yet best Watson, a product of IBM’s DeepQA research project. (The three day match will air February 14-16.) But we only need to think back to 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov to understand that it doesn’t really matter. Kasparov had handily beaten Deep Blue only a year earlier, though the 1996 match did mark the first time a computer won a single game in such a match. Today, just as then, the continuing improvements in computer processing speed, memory, storage and algorithms all but ensure that any such triumph would be fleeting. We have turned a page on this once most human of intellectual feats and the world won’t be the same again.

So what can we look ahead to now that we’ve reached this milestone? In the short term, IBM plans to market their technology and profit by their achievement. Initially, the system price will be high, probably in the millions of dollars, but like so much computer technology, the price will plummet over the coming decade. As the technology becomes more widely used, a range of tasks and jobs previously considered safe from AI will no longer be performed by human workers. Protectionist regulations may attempt to save these jobs but these efforts will probably be short-lived. The resulting large-scale unemployment will require a rethinking of government institutions and safety nets, as well as corporate business models.

At the same time, this type of general knowledge AI (it’s far too early to call it AGI) will contribute to greater and more rapid advances in machine intelligence. Such technology could bootstrap the Semantic Web into broad usage. In all likelihood, it will be used to create personal intelligent agents, giving users the virtual equivalent of a staff of assistants. And eventually, it could facilitate the development of a true artificial general intelligence or at least contribute to the education of such an AGI.

Will such an intelligence be conscious? Will it be self-improving, leading to a positive feedback loop that brings about a powerful and hopefully benign superintelligence? Only time will tell. But perhaps one day, on a future holographic version of Jeopardy, we’ll be presented with clues to which the correct response will be, “What was the Singularity?”