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Guest column | Dr. Rao Musunuru

Supercomputer Watson a sign of human ingenuity

Three days in a row, I went home early from work to watch a quiz show on TV, Jeopardy! The IBM challenge, promoted as "man versus machine."

After watching the show, I asked my better half what her thoughts were. "Jeopardy," she said. "The human race is in jeopardy. Now we know one of the ways the world may end — supercomputers figuring out the nuclear launch codes."

She must be watching too many science fiction movies in her spare time, I figured, or she has been reading too much about "singularity,'' the exponential expansion of artificial intelligence to a point far exceeding the total sum of human brain power, projected to happen by 2045.

She did not need to ask what I thought. She could see the exuberance on my face. It did not bother me a bit, that M. Watson (M for machine, named after the IBM founder Thomas Watson) scored very high. That was an expected outcome. Remember IBM's Deep Blue versus world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997?

I would have been very disappointed if the machine did not win: Ten racks of computer servers with more than 400 mainframes filling an entire room, running on about 2,500 parallel processor cores, each able to perform up to 33 billion operations a second, using 100-some logic algorithms, built by 25 IBM scientists over four years, holding 200 million pages of data (15 terabytes) with advanced speech recognition and speech synthesis features.

M. Watson can understand, learn, store, retrieve, think, execute and express.

Who were you rooting for, my wife asked. Humans, of course.

It is a promotional gimmick both for IBM and Jeopardy! But, in my mind, it is not a competition — it is a celebration of the human mind, a celebration of the superiority, complexity and creativity of the human mind that created the machine.

The human mind has the capacity to imagine the unimaginable and the capability to materialize whatever it can imagine, out of thin air or thick dust, literally. Whether it is the supreme skill of the creator, or the sensational creation of evolution or most possibly a combination of both, there is nothing comparable to the human brain.

In 1902, A Trip to the Moon was a black and white, silent, science fiction movie. By 1969, man traveled in space, landed on the moon and returned safely. A technological marvel made possible by the human mind.

In 1966, Capt. James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock were conversing with the fictional computer in Star Trek. Last week, we witnessed M. Watson understand and answer Alex Trebek, as clearly and concisely as the other contestants. A modern miracle made possible by the human brain.

Every day, I see hundreds of practical applications of modern technology in my medical practice. The deaf can hear, the blind can see and an amputee can run. There are artificial pacemakers, pumps, pipes, valves and joints. The potential for new application is endless. We just started working with cells, genes and objects at nano levels.

Technology has taken us deeper into the oceans and higher into space. Technology benefits every aspect of human life. You see it when you Google for some information. You see it when you are using a GPS for directions to your destination.

One day all the capacity of M. Watson may be miniaturized onto a tiny DNA chip that can be embedded in the human body, to make the human brain super-efficient. The technology won't make humans immortal, but it will definitely extend life and improve its quality.

Ironically, lack of emotion may be the best thing about computers at this time. No judgment error based on bias, ego, anger, jealousy, hatred, greed, frustration, paranoia and, of course, love. The fate of the human race is in the hands of humans.

World wars and holocausts happened before computers. Destruction of our habitat started before discovery of atomic energy and decoding of the human genome.

There is a tremendous application for efficiency (speed and volume), accuracy and reliability in everything humans do, in any field one can think of. My dear Watson, we are in this together and we have a long way to go, to solve a lot of puzzles.

Dr. Rao Musunuru is a practicing cardiologist in Bayonet Point, serving residents of Pasco and Hernando counties since 1981.

Supercomputer Watson a sign of human ingenuity 02/22/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 5:21pm]
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