Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Watson Envy and the Meaning of Life

From the upcoming edition of the Catholic Key, Santiago Ramos’ latest:
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IN THE WAKE of the “Watson” computer’s victory against its human competition in Jeopardy! last week, the Wall Street Journal asked the renowned and septuagenarian philosopher John Searle to repeat an argument he had formulated 31 years earlier, concerning the possibility of creating a computer which could think like a human being. The famous “Chinese Room” argument attempts to demonstrate the simple claim that the formal manipulation of symbols (which is what a computer does) is something different, not merely in degree but in kind, from what we human beings know intimately as “understanding.”

Watson’s hard drive contains several encyclopedias and dictionaries, as well as Wikipedia, and it is able search its memory bank in a flash; but such functions are merely outputs responding to inputs, or symbols responding to other symbols, all dependent upon human-made programming working as the necessary underlying grammar. As Searle puts it, “The reason it [Watson] lacks understanding is that…it has no way to get from symbols to meanings (or from syntax to semantics, in linguistic jargon). The bottom line can be put in the form of a four-word sentence: Symbols are not meanings.”

SUCH AN ARGUMENT will only go so far in calming down those of us who know that, whenever a computer beats a man at anything, we start thinking about more than just our own processing speeds. We start thinking about our self-worth. Not because the presence of the computer poses any sort of existential threat, but because it forces us to re-evaluate the way we see our life as a human being, as opposed to a plastic-covered, unfeeling processing unit.

Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings, one of the two humans bested by Watson, essayed his own re-evaluation in Slate, writing that, in the end, Watson’s victory could be seen as victory not for the machine but for humanity as a whole. Not only did Jennings actually square off pretty respectably in his losing effort against the mammoth computer, but it could also be argued that Watson is in fact a symbol of “human innovation and ingenuity.” Nevertheless, Jennings could see a few advantages to being a machine: “…unlike us, Watson cannot be intimidated. It never gets cocky or discouraged. It plays its game coldly, implacably, always offering a perfectly timed buzz when it's confident about an answer.”

Despite his optimism, however, there are some nagging questions hidden behind Jennings’ observation. Are our feelings—our highs and lows, our doubts and even our states of confident assertion—actually a hindrance rather than a blessing? Is Watson’s artificial sangfroid an advantage that should become a desire?

These are the questions of science fiction, but only because science fiction writers were among the first to understand that the more a culture values calculation and efficiency above all other qualities, the more human beings will have reasons to envy robots. But the answer to Watson envy is obvious enough: It depends on what you want to do. Or to put it in a way which introduces a new term into the discussion: It depends on what life is for. If our primary goals and tasks involve calculation, measurement, or data retrieval and organization (just think about what Watson could do in the stock market!), then certain feelings become hindrances to such activities and we may have some reasons to envy Watson. If life is the indefinite but limited period of time each of us has during which to engage in these activities, then we may as well do them as efficiently as Watson. If this is what we want to do, and this is what we think life is for, then the answer is obvious: Watson is good at doing these sort of things, and at doing them quickly.

WHAT IS INTERESTING is that our immediate instinct tells us that life is about more than calculation, measurement, data retrieval, and efficiency. It could be something loftier and metaphysical, or it may merely have an inessential layer of emotional frosting, but it is still more. There is no point to being efficient if we don’t know that the job we are doing is worth doing efficiently. Efficiency merely gets us to the finish line more quickly, and life itself cannot be lived in that way—who would like to rush to the finish line of life? Somehow, for some reason, the moments in between are necessary—even the loitering and the wandering and the moments when one is lost in the woods. We trust—though sometimes come close to despair—that it will all “add up in the end,” though we don’t often see how. Life is about more than sentience—it is a story which unfolds and which creates us as much as we create it.

If these observations seem banal or poetic, it is only because we have an impoverished sense of what life is. I can only do some much to try to grasp the subject for myself. It is, at least, as much a horizontal whole, which we discover, as it is a vertical phenomenon of discrete, successive moments. In the very least, we can say that there is more than one way in which Watson is not alive.

Santiago Ramos is currently pursuing doctoral studies in philosophy at Boston College. He has written for First Things, Image Journal, Commonweal and the Pitch.