Can a Computer Show Altruism?

by Jennifer Miller on February 17, 2011

in Business Management

Super-Smarts without Compassion: A Dangerous Combo

I’ve been enjoying the press surrounding this week’s Jeopardy game show match-up of IBM super-computer Watson against two of Jeopardy’s most prodigious players, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.  Of course, there have been many accounts of the “man versus machine” angle. My personal favorite came from an interview in which NPR’s Talk of the Nation Neil Conan interviewed contestant Ken Jennings. A person calling in to the show recounted a famous Jeopardy match in which the leader prior to Final Jeopardy made a wager constructed to create a three-way tie. The caller wondered if Watson was programmed for similar notions of altruism.

Jenning’s response? “You’re asking, does the machine love, I guess. My guess is that Watson plays to win. That’s how I play. And I know the IBM engineers have told me they watched my style of play very carefully. . . I don’t think Watson would play for the tie. And my inclination is that I would not either. Maybe it’s just – maybe it’s personal pride. But I like to think it’s the dignity of the species. I would like to see the big, bad machine go down in flames.”

Ken Jennings is an amazingly smart (and funny) guy. It was great listening to him trade quips and factoids with Neil Conan and the other callers.  

So, this is all fun and games, right? No harm, no foul, just a little TV entertainment. I’d like to think so, but then again. . .according to a Time Health and Science article, there’s a thing called “singularity”— the point at which computers become smarter than humans. The Time article says this event is predicted for 2045.

The year 2045 isn’t all that far away. Heck, I’m may even still be around.  If these events come to pass, then maybe we should be learning to “play nice” not only with our fellow humans, but with computers too. As opposed to wanting to see them go down in flames.  Just in case, you know, they forgot to program the computers with that altruism.

As of the publishing of this post, Mr. Jennings and Mr. Rutter have one more round of Jeopardy to play before all is said and done. At the moment, it looks like Watson is kicking their butts. Let’s hope we can add in a little compassion before 2045. Perhaps a little less Watson, a little more WALL-E.

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