The idea of a Game Show playing computer might seem like it was coming straight out of a Hollywood film, but a new system developed by IBM’s Watson does just that. And while it might not sound like the cutting edge of computer processing, it’s certainly the first machine to perform one incredibly difficult task programmers have been trying to do for some time. And it could mean the age of Artificial Intelligence has arrived.
It’s no secret that computers run exclusively on numbers. Though we see text and operating systems translate the numbers into symbols we can understand, the premise never changes. We’re dealing with numbers that cannot be translated easily into words and concepts. That is the duty of the programmer. But as we get into the future and computers become increasingly powerful, we’ll have more need for computers to be able to not only take a user’s commands through simple numeric instructions, but also by conversing with them. In other words, the growing use of computers in our world means we’ll have to find a way to talk to them and be spoken to by them.
When a computer understands a concept such as a date and can cross reference that information with other bits of data streaming about its processor, it will quickly be able to arrange these concepts and then speak to us.
Essentially if we were to want to know what day it was, we would just ask a person, “What day is it?” That person would look at a calendar or simply know off the top of his or her heads. But if we were to ask a computer the same thing, we would have to go to a program that had a calendar in it. The conversation would essentially be “Access calendar, display date: today” or something like it. But humans didn’t develop language to meet the needs of computers. And as such, computers can not have a simple conversation with us. But if we were able to, for example, tell the computer we weren’t feeling well, and it had the capabilities of human speech patterns it would be able to ask the symptoms we were feeling. We could tell the computer we were feeling lethargic, tired, and had a headache. The computer could then ask for a few other symptoms to which we could answer yes or no and then come to a diagnosis. The result? Computerized doctors who could save time and worry for both customers and after sufficient tweaking might be able to even prescribe medicine or recommend treatments with the confidence of both the users and the medical community.
And imagine being able to have a desktop companion that you could simply switch on and converse about the topics of the day. Each new bit of information could be stored and cross referenced on a massive computer database and provide much needed perspective on current events issues. But not only that. It could prove just as useful to us tomorrow as computers originally became in the mid 1990’s. Such a machine would essentially be able to pass the Turing Test and artificial intelligence would be finally born.
How far off is this technological miracle? And what challenges will a world of intelligent computers bring to us? Only time will tell, but if current technology is any indicator, it seems that time is coming quite soon.