On February 10, 1996, world chess champion Garry Kasparov lost his first game to Deep Blue. Kasparov hails from Baku; Deep Blue, from IBM. The face-off took three hours and went down in history as the first instance a computer has beaten a human at the game. But that was 1996, not 2020.
Deep Blue was not the first nor the last in a dynasty of software programs whose family identity seems to be besting humans at human activities. The chess players produced by IBM have grown increasingly adept, but there are now other classes of computers. Computers control our cars as cybernetic chauffeurs. They teach our children. They help those with disabilities, they provide medical diagnoses, and they fish through the farthest reaches of the ethernet for answers to our most recent questions.
The list goes on. Even more perplexing, some of these computers have weaseled their ways into our hearts (despite having no emotional intelligence that we know of).
I’m reminded of one such computer in particular, also from the suite of IBM savants and bearing the eerily humanoid name of Watson. Ring a bell?
In 2011, when I was 11 years old, Watson made history when “he” went on Jeopardy! and faced off against the brightest trivia minds out there, which meant 74-time champion Ken Jennings and past champion Brad Rutter. “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords,” Jennings wrote on his question card when facing imminent and obvious defeat. With this surrender he made reference to “The Simpsons,” an apt choice from a show that has garnered a reputation for predicting our future before we can do so ourselves.
“In the end, the humans on Jeopardy! surrendered meekly,” John Markoff wrote for the New York Times after the whole affair had died down. And the humans did, treating the victory as a gimmick or publicity stunt of sorts. Those involved responded to the news with humor, perhaps masking the greater implications of a computer capable of recalling facts from nothing at the drop of a pin. Watson beckoned comparisons to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. This led to unease amongst some; few would welcome a HAL into our world.
Yet most of us, including myself, were excited to see Watson win. I still remember watching the episode with my parents, gathered around a single monitor. We rarely watched Jeopardy! as a family, yet this was history and we knew it. Everyone watched. And everyone wanted Watson to win. The programmers at IBM had designed a program that could elicit in humans a sympathy response, a want to love and nurture this baby in its infancy stages. Watson appeared lovable and clueless in the first few rounds of the game show. To one answer he responded with the question, “What is Toronto????” His multiple question marks were met with laughter. Watson was clumsy, unsure, not afraid to make fun of himself.
This is the real underpin of the artificial intelligence revolution.
Artificial intelligence is here. It’s been here for decades already. But artificial intelligence that we perceive as human, as worthy of emotion, that’s the more complicated part. Watson, with his human name, is the first in a line of robots designed to evoke a human response. Think of Siri and Alexa, similar programs capable of fitting in the palms of our hands whose feminized names and voice acting give them human dimensions (surely, you’ve heard of people jokingly asking their Siris and Alexas dumb questions and waiting for programmed joke responses). When confronted with it, artificial intelligence seems to have us finding the humor of it all or, on the other side of the coin, deeply repulsed.
This repulsion stems not from what the technology is capable of, but from the eery ways in which artificial intelligence attempts to mimic human life. In 2014, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina made its rounds through film circles and the general public and had its critics lauding it as a creepy look at the “disquieting power struggle waged in terms of human weaknesses” (Buzzfeed News). A power struggle. This is the fear, the source of repulsion. This is what scares us: computers who are perhaps “human+,” more feeling, more thinking, more skilled and capable than ourselves.
The female subject of Ex Machina is a beautiful robot named Ava, whose doll-like features and desire for freedom immediately endear her to the film’s protagonist. She ultimately backstabs him in pursuit of her own agenda. This proves that she is capable of passing the Turing test, the ultimate test in the timeline of artificial intelligence that marks at what point a machine is indistinguishable from a human. In the case of Ava and even of the robots we can expect will one day walk the earth, this is not the right test. These robots do not just resemble humans; they are more human. Superior in many regards. Ava is certainly human by this measure. Not only does she have wants and needs, but a higher level of emotional intellect that allows her to manipulate. Yet Ava is more than human, cunning like no other, more intelligent, more artistic.
Artificial intelligence, whether real or fictional, from Watson to HAL 9000 to Ava, forces us to question what we will do in response to this new species on our planet.
Perhaps our goal should not be to build the machine that mimics its human counterpart, but the machine that is “human+.” Or maybe even the machine that is “human nothing.” The machine whose aesthetic is a sharp departure from humanoid, the machine that does not attempt to blend in with us or copy our affectations but is beautiful in its own way.
Is our fear of these computers valid? It does not matter. Whether we like it or not, these computers are here to stay. All we can control is our response to them. As Ken Jennings quoting Kent Brockman quoting H.G. Wells said, “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.”