“By far the most difficult reason for our lack of dedicated intention [on the spiritual path] is the nature of silence itself. When we stop moving, stillness arises, and stillness holds nothing of ‘me’ within it. It swallows us in an instant. The purpose of much of our thinking has been to keep this silence at bay by imposing a layer of noise between this gulf of quiet and us. All our becoming is an attempt to fill this absolute hole of nothingness with something, anything to disturb it. Silence overwhelms everything the sense-of-self holds dear, so for most of us, abiding in stillness is too much to ask.”—Rodney Smith in Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self (Shambhala Publications)
Search for Ken Jennings + Watson and his now well-known concession will be featured prominently. The IBM-built competitor soundly defeated the most celebrated human contestants on Jeopardy! and Jennings quipped: “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.”
Search Watson + Skynet and Google will deliver nearly one million results. The comparisons to Skynet - the bringer of the apocolypse in James Cameron’s Terminator series - suggests that the gentle ego of the human race is ready to succumb to the idea that we have met our masters. The same insecurity that drives jealous girlfriends, vengeful obsessors, patriarchal conservatives and power-mongering socialites seeds our interest in the man vs. machine story. Watson is a cold-blooded killer. Completely without fear. Desiring nothing in the way that we know desire, but designed to relentlessly pursue victory.
I’ve spent some time studying artificial intelligence. As an undergrad in computer science I specifically studied creative computing - machines that attempt to emulate intangible substance of human creativity. Nothing as complex as Watson, of course, but I was writing software that would take visual art movements such as Cubism or Expressionism and create new work in that vein. In Watson’s case, its ability to combine natural language skills with an array of factual inferences places its “intelligence” somewhere in the range of an 8-year-old with an incredible depth of raw knowledge. Jennings inadvertently proved his superiority by combining natural language skills, a depth of knowledge and a final ingredient - creativity - in his Final Jeopardy! quip. So while Watson is a serious accomplishment, it is not a wrecker of humanity.
IBM enjoys the publicity playing on the tired trope of man vs. machine, however. Kasprov vs. Deep Blue is one of the most well-known Big Blue publicity stunts. So IBM continues the narrative and the narrative continues to garner interest. In this case, even Ken Jennings was bought in hook, line and sinker:
"This was to be an away game for humanity, I realized as I walked onto the slightly-smaller-than-regulation Jeopardy! set that had been mocked up in the building’s main auditorium. […] The stands were full of hopeful IBM programmers and executives, whispering excitedly and pumping their fists every time their digital darling nailed a question."
The pre-Watson Jennings called this “an away game for humanity.” The conflict and the intrigue with a central hero on alien turf. Perfect Hollywood. However, the post-Watson Jennings was slightly more enlightened:
"[Afterwards] I understood then why the engineers wanted to beat me so badly: To them, I wasn’t the good guy, playing for the human race. That was Watson’s role, as a symbol and product of human innovation and ingenuity."
Watson’s technology is fundamentally benign. The A to B stepwise motion to eliminating the world as we know it doesn’t start here. Perhaps it starts in a military lab where a scientist is developing a more powerful weapon. Perhaps the Ending begins with the development of a biochemical agent administered through a coordinated attack. But the evolution of Watson is going to be a sentient Asimov-inspired enslaver of humans? No, that lacks imagination and plausibility.
We attempt to create intelligence because we don’t want to be alone. It’s why we have fabricated gods. It’s why we search for life outside the earth. We look for a more perfect us to learn from, or at the very least, an us that evolves and behaves in surprising ways that we can observe. Regardless, confidence is key. Just like every other challenge we face, we either improve ourselves or we’re consumed by fear and relent.
The machines are not going to rise and conquer. They are going to challenge us. They are going to outmanuver us. But these challenges serve to make us better. They will help us in the long run. That’s the narrative I want to see embedded in Watson’s drama. Watson + Beautiful should return millions of search results that exalt our great accomplishment as a species - the result of the unique and unbounded creativity of the human mind.
“I shall no longer be instructed by the Yoga Veda or the Aharva Veda, or the ascetics, or any other doctrine whatsoever. I shall learn from myself, be a pupil of myself; I shall get to know myself, the mystery of Siddhartha.” He looked around as if he were seeing the world for the first time.”— Hermann Hesse (Siddhartha)
Once Mother Theresa was asked what she said when she prayed. She answered that she didn’t say anything, she listened. When asked what God said to her, she said that God didn’t say anything; He listened back. She added that if you didn’t understand, she couldn’t explain it further.
“God speaks in the silence of the heart. Listening is the beginning of prayer.”―Mother Theresa