Centre for Internet & Society

Now that an algorithm has given humans a run for their money on a quiz show, it’s time to rethink the idea of a machine. A fortnightly column on ‘Digital Natives’ authored by Nishant Shah is featured in the Sunday Eye, the national edition of Indian Express, Delhi, from 19 September 2010 onwards. This article was published on March 6, 2011.

Quantum theory suggests that multiple universes exist where every possible alternative can come true. If this were the case, somewhere there must be a world filled with machines that are looking at human evolution and figuring out new and advanced human machine relationships. Or for those who are not very quantum minded, imagine a world where machines are the evolved species and they depend upon human technology — emotional connections, semantic learning, etc. — for their daily transactions and survival. I am not suggesting a futuristic dystopia, like the kind that science fiction specialises in. However, it would be interesting to imagine a world where technology is not only at the periphery of human civilisation but at the centre of it.

I am proposing this world view to revisit the idea of a digital native. We have, so far, in scholarship and practice, education and policy, only looked at digital natives as young human beings who interact in new and innovative ways with evolving technologies, to form human-machine networks and assemblages. However, as Artificial Intelligence and Intelligence Augmentation develop to produce thinking technologies, it is time to start looking at being sapient as not necessarily a human condition.

Early last month, an artificially created super computing system called Watson (elementary, surely?) took the world by a storm as it competed against two human contestants on a popular American quiz show called Jeopardy! The trivia-based show provides answers clustered around a particular theme, and contestants have to ask the correct question to the answer, to win prize money. It is not a straightforward question-answer show because it relies on more than human memory and recollection. It gives cryptic clues (like the ones we are used to in a crossword), offers semantic relationships which need more than just a database memory, and relies on the contestants’ abilities to make creative connections between the clues in order to guess the right questions.

Watson, a product of seven years of research by IBM Research, works on an algorithm which simulates human language and cognitive patterns to make intelligent connections and deductions to understand the context of the clues and then provide answers. Powered by 2,800 super powered computers on a high-speed network, Watson competed against Jeopardy!’s biggest champions and made history as it showed extraordinary human learning and predictive powers. It has been one of the biggest achievements in advanced computing to develop an algorithm that mimics human learning and has changed the way in which we look at the human-machine relationship.

While much commentary on Watson revolves around what it means to be human, and subsequently, what it is to be a digital native, I have a different proposition to make. Perhaps, Watson’s debut on American television is not only about thinking what is human, but also about what it means to be a machine.

First, the Watson that appeared on TV was a sleek display screen that stood behind a lectern in the studio along with the human contestants. The original Watson was next door, being cooled by refrigeration units, but it appeared to the human audience (in and outside the studio) in its avatar. This was a radically new idea because we have always thought of the avatar as a technology based representation of human users. We find avatars on Facebook and in online role-playing games. To think of a machine appearing in a human form was radically new.

Second, Watson was not able to just make predictions by mining information. It was also able to display levels of confidence. If Watson was not confident about an answer, it did not push the buzzer to answer. In fact, once the information was harvested, it displayed its top three guesses to show that, like human contestants, it calculated risks of wrong answers.

Third, Watson was able to display or at least simulate human emotions. It took guesses even when in doubt. It showed a spirit of adventure and played big. It was disappointed when it lost or was happy when it got the answers. It was able to display its “emotions” through various displays in its form and could get the audience’s attention, applause and support.

What this experiment suggests to me is that Watson is perhaps a digital native. All our concentration has always been on human subjects, but synthetic life forms and technology-based intelligence, are blurring this distinction between humans and technologies. We should start thinking of a digital native as neither machine nor human being, but a combination of the two, residing simultaneously in both the realms of the physical and the digital. Watson is perhaps a new digital native, a technology that is growing and slowly learning from its interactions with the human world around it. One of these days, we might be living in the midst of computational devices, which, when we are flummoxed, might turn to us and say, “Elementary, my dear Sherlock!”

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Read the original in the Indian Express here

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