Elementary, Dear Watson: A Sermon for Parshat VaYikra 5771


The feature story of Time magazine’s February 21, 2011 edition warns of the approaching singularity, the moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. To science fiction writer Vernon Vinge, that moment can be dated to the year 2023 at the outside. Speaking at a 1993 symposium on artificial intelligence hosted by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Vinge predicted: “Within thirty years we will have the means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” Steve Grand, is the author of Creation: Life and How to Make It. He is also the creator of “Creatures,” the first computer game to use what some call “genuine artificial life (sic).” Grand believes that the time is soon upon us when computer characters will need to be considered living entities with self-awareness. That will require imposing upon them the rules of morality and affording them the protection of the legal system. Some will find all this puzzling; others, frightening. It is the very sub-text of James Cameron’s Terminator films.

And the possibility of computers dominating the earth and subjugating humanity has only been fueled by the recent success of Watson, the room-size IBM computer that vanquished two of the finest “Jeopardy” players ever to appear on the game show. Last month, over the course of two days, the computer nearly tripled the winnings amassed by its closest human competitor. Watson was able to respond faster and more accurately than its opponents. What makes Watson a signal advance on its predecessors, like the Univac of the 1940’s and the chess-playing “Deep Blue” of the 1980’s is Watson’s ability to process human language, the obstacle that most designers believed would always leave computers behind. Now that obstacle has, it seems, been overcome and the ceiling for computers is unlimited.

Yet before we either applaud or shudder, consider that Watson was not infallible. On “Jeopardy” the computer – to everyone’s amusement and particularly to Canadians – blew the Final Jeopardy answer. Responding to the clue: “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle,” Watson answered: “Toronto” rather than “Chicago.” The two human players, incidentally, both got this one right. And in an interview with two reporters from the Associated Press, Professor Eric Nyberg, of Carnegie Mellon University and a consultant for the Watson team, revealed that when asked, Watson replied that grasshoppers eat (are?) kosher.

It is not simply the fact that Watson is fallible that makes its IBM designers far less sanguine about the superiority of computers over human beings. Lead Researcher and Watson handler David Ferucci underscores the fact that Watson is merely capable of statistical machine learning. “It gives you the answer that makes sense to you,” he explains, “but it doesn’t mean anything to the computer.” Similarly, computers like Watson can be programmed to tell certain kinds of jokes. By a speedy process of word association, or synonymy, or rhyme, Watson could generate puns. But – and this is key – it does not appreciate the humour. And even when it comes to language itself, says Ben Zimmer writing in Time magazine, all Watson does is crunch tetrabytes of data to figure out statistically likely responses to clues based in part on which words appear most often with other words.

Further, while computers may be programmed to respond with certain reactions to particular stimuli – oral, tactile, or visual – in pre-determined situations, computers have no real emotions. This is precisely what makes computers a useful tool for making medical diagnoses or performing monotonous tasks. But emotions are essential for character. Out of a sense of shame we strive to improve. Out of a sense of concern we act to assist. Out of empathy we offer comfort and support. It is along these lines that author Peter Guber writes about the hidden power of story-telling. From primitive cultures to the production boardrooms of Hollywood, in his book Tell to Win, Guber shows that it is a human presence – replete with emotions and gesticulations – that gives the power to connect and to persuade. Based on lessons form their own experience, human beings tell stories with purpose; computers have no stories to tell.

I confess that I have an antagonistic relationship with computers, in fact, with most electronic devices. We simply do not get along. With a long history of poor cooperation with my instructions and the seeming intent to stall my plans, I have come to believe that there is a conspiracy afoot. It is with grave misgivings that I have succumbed to developing a web-site, enrolling on Facebook, and even “tweeting.” I fear that before too long these things will find a way to make my life more complicated and frustrating. But this is the price to pay to stay in touch in the modern world. I make this confession as a matter of full disclosure. So if it sounds like I have issues with computers, you know why.

But my neurosis aside, there is an important point to make. God could have created a world in which people would be infallible automatons. We could have been divinely programmed to always do what is right. But we were not. We are often selfish, sinful, shameless, ignorant creatures. But that is precisely what makes us human. Our quest is not to get all the right answers and as fast as possible but to be morally aware, ethically acting, socially concerned. That is why the Torah lays out the vehicle for acknowledging our mistakes and atoning for them. And that is why historically it is the book of the Torah that focuses on sacrifices, VaYikra, that was the first taught to our children. As a ritual, the sacrificial cult seems strange. But as a concept, it is brilliant. Computers will have their place. But human beings will not be replaced.

Rather than worry over the possibility of computers dominating our world, we should worry over dominating ourselves. Let us all aspire to be better human beings; not despite our flaws and failings, but because of our flaws and failings.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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