An excerpt from a book on the Jeopardy playing computer appeared in the Wall Street Journal this week. In it, the leader of the Watson team at IBM talks about what their creation means for humanity, and the kinds of questions he hopes to inspire:

Over the next four years, Mr. Ferrucci set about creating a world in which people and their machines often appeared to switch roles. He didn’t know, he later said, whether humans would ever be able to “create a sentient being.” But when he looked at fellow humans through the eyes of a computer scientist, he saw patterns of behaviors that often appeared to be pre-programmed: the zombie-like commutes, the near-identical routines, from tooth-brushing to feeding the animals, the retreat to the same chair, the hand reaching for the TV remote. “It’s more interesting,” he said, “when humans delve inside themselves and say, ‘Why am I doing this? And why is it relevant and important to be human?’ “

His machine, if successful, would nudge people toward that line of inquiry. Even with an avatar for a face and a robotic voice, the “Jeopardy” machine would invite comparisons to the other two contestants on the stage. This was inevitable. And whether it won or lost on a winter evening in 2011, the computer might lead millions of spectators to rethink the nature, and probe the potential, of their own humanity.

He seems to be arguing that the moment when humans seriously question what separates us from machines will have as much to do with our having become more machine-like in the rote of our habits, as it does with machines becoming more human-like in their behavior.

I don’t think it is likely or that the Ferrucci is claiming it, but one could write a science fiction tale where our recognition of genuine A.I. comes purely as a result of a lower and lower bar for what we consider human intelligence, and actually occurs during a static state of machine intelligence.

Much less pessimistically, Ferrucci is hoping that competition with, and mimicry by, machines will move us to better ourselves and be less machine-like. Mr. Ferrucci apparently did not see Wall-E, where technology and A.I. allows humans to become more machine-like and lazy. For sure, spell-check has made us spend less time working on being good at spelling, and calculators have allowed us to become less skilled with basic numeracy.  But will machines that can do all simple minded tasks allow us to specialize entirely out of simple-minded tasks?

This mostly makes me envision a future where 60% of the U.S. are public sector funded artists, bloggers, and service reviewers, since subjectivity will be the last place machines can compete with us. People will spend all day reviewing Netflix movies and contributing to other crowd-sourced clouds of subjectivity, where there will be at least some value to our actions which machines can’t replicate. Reviewing and ranking will be all the more important given that so many people will be artists “for a living”, and the amount of content will be massive. The art of science, from knowing what is a meaningful to hypothesis to envisioning a novel way to test it,  also tells me we’ll have many more freelance scientists.  That doesn’t sound so bad a world.

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