Welcome innovation with skepticism
While it may not be the most scholarly point of reference, Disney-Pixar's "Wall-E" is notable for being an adorable children's movie, which paints a morbid picture of humanity's future at the hands of artificial intelligence. It is possible to dismiss the film as nothing more than cute and funny, with some dark adult overtones, but it is not the first movie to posit a bleak vision of a future wherein machines rule the day. Should we be taking heed of these warnings? This is where I.B.M.'s Watson comes in. Watson is a supercomputer, which has thus far done a pretty good job competing on "Jeopardy," beating out Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter — the two most successful "Jeopardy" competitors to date. Some people have taken a rather alarmist approach to Watson, heralding him as mankind's death knell and a sure sign of the fast-approaching age of machines. Others have decided the machine is nothing more than the next step in computer progress, more of an aide to human beings than an adversary. Whatever the opinion, Watson is a pretty big deal — one that will have some serious repercussions for the future of man's relationship with technology. We may not have to fear an apocalyptic, "Terminator"-style scenario, but we should proceed with caution nonetheless.
In Richard Powers' Feb. 5 Op-Ed for the New York Times,entitled "What is Artificial Intelligence?", the author likens Watson to an incredibly powerful search engine — essentially, a glorified Google. As of now, that is really all that Watson is — a machine with the ability to comb through incredible amounts of data in order to successfully answer a posed query. But one needs to consider the possible repercussions of such advanced technology. What does it mean when computers start thinking much, much faster than humans? What does it mean when those computers start understanding the subtler nuances of language — something no search engines have done just yet?
What it means is that human beings now have a machine that may end up laying the groundwork for some tremendously useful instruments. But we should not wait to see what happens before considering how we should deal with artificial intelligence in the legislative realm. While Watson may be yet another stage of the human race's perpetual march to new heights, we cannot forget that many terrible things have come out of technological advancement in the past — nuclear weaponry, for one. In the wrong hands, advanced technology has the potential to pose severe danger. So we may not end up battling robot overlords any time soon — if at all — but we have to remember that innovation can often be a double-edged sword.