The NOVA episode Smartest Machine on Earth chronicles the four-year-long effort of a team of computer scientists at IBM to build a machine named Watson (after IBM's founder) that can play Jeopardy! -- a TV quiz show that represents for many the essence of human intelligence.
Working on this episode has caused me to reflect on a time many years ago when I made a NOVA called "Mind Machines." That film, like this new NOVA, is a reflection on the quest to create machines that can think like we do - in other words, artificial intelligence. In those days, that quest was just beginning and the results were pretty primitive. My film demonstrated a machine that could understand natural language well enough to manipulate different colored objects in a small world of blocks. It showed Eliza, a computer program that could respond like a psychiatrist, but was really just filling in the blanks based on what a "patient" had just typed in. The film began with a clip from Stanley Kubrick's classic "2001: A Space Odyssey," with its unforgettable scenes of the engaging but psychotic computer HAL running amok.
Artificial Intelligence, or AI, back then inspired two kinds of reactions: faith that it could be done and fear that it would. Most of the computer scientists I consulted were among the faithful. One accused me of being a "human chauvinist pig" when I expressed doubts. On the other hand, a few experts and most ordinary people worried that smart computers, like HAL, would get out of control and start running the world. What would happen to human values, these people asked, if silicon brains were more powerful than our own?
A lot has changed since then. First, a little thing called the Internet has come roaring into our lives. Unlike anyone I knew at the time, all the experts at MIT, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon that I interviewed had computers on their desks and could communicate with each other through cyberspace on a system called the ARPANET. A few years later, it's not just the experts who are benefiting from these innovations. Computers have become relatively cheap and accessible. Many of us have not one but several of them. We can communicate with each other across time and space and have a world of virtually limitless information at our fingertips.
And that's why, I believe, the fear factor has declined. We're used to computers. We know how dumb they are. We understand that they are limited to a narrow range of tasks we program them to do. The versatility of small children - the way they pick up language, navigate around obstacles, and learn to play games - is still out of reach for machines. And that's why, when we watch a computer named Watson compete against Jeopardy! champions, our admiration is less for its silicon brain than for the human ones that labored so long and hard to create it.