neuroscience | February 16, 2011

Steven Pinker Answers Questions About IBM's Jeopardy-Winning Supercomputer

As IBM’s Watson outsmarts its human competitors on Jeopardy this week, Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, weighs in on what the computer’s victory could mean for humanity. Asked by The New Yorker whether Watson is a scientific breakthrough or merely a parlor trick—an elaborate billion-dollar parlor trick!—Pinker said that Watson may provide insight into human cognition. But, he adds: “[W]hen a system is designed to meet a highly specific challenge like playing Jeopardy, and one where the reputations of the designers are on the line, there will be enormous pressure to tailor the system to succeeding at that challenge by any means whatsoever, including kludges that are specific to the rather peculiar requirements of the game of Jeopardy.”

Watson’s win has brought Artificial Intelligence back into the spotlight, and Steven Pinker takes the opportunity to talk about the golden age of A.I., meaning the 1960s and ’70s. What’s different about A.I. today is a matter of transparency. During the golden age, ideas flowed freely among researchers at various companies. Since then, due to tougher competition, companies have been less likely to share their ideas in the public domain, choosing instead to work on applied projects in-house. So, Pinker says, unless IBM breaks from this closed culture and reveals what went into Watson’s construction, “we won’t be able to know how much of the program’s success to attribute to humanlike or superhuman intelligence, and how much to Jeopardy-specific hacks.”

Photo above courtesy of Rebecca Goldstein.

Read more about neuroscience speaker Steven Pinker

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