So who caught the Jeopardy! IBM "Man vs. Machine" Challenge that aired for Feb. 14th, 15th, and 16th? It should be, like, required viewing for all nerds, trivia geeks, etc. I mean, I like Jeopardy, and trivia, on a normal basis, but the IBM Challenge took Jeopardy to the next level--which, apparently, includes science, as well as a little bit of what most people might consider sci-fi as well.
A little background for those who don't know anything of what this is about: for the past few years, IBM has worked on creating a computer that can answer questions by reproducing the way human beings answer questions. "Watson," the computer's name, is loaded up with a ton of data, and has algorithms that allow him to pick out the key words in the Jeopardy clue, sift through his data for possible answers, and predict how likely the terms his algorithms picked out might be the answer. The scientists' hope is that one day this sort of artificial intelligence would be beneficial to, say, doctors working in an extremely isolated area, who may not have access to medical textbooks and other informational resources, may be able to plug symptoms into the database and have the computer spit back the diagnosis and its treatment. You can watch the entire 3-day challenge through Youtube if you'd like.
But that is an issue for IBM to consider for the future, and not what I want to focus on here.
Lots of really smart people have, in TED talks, proposed the project of something like "Internet 2.0," in which all of the data in the world is just put out there for anyone to access and play with as they want. In such a case, typing the question "How many U.S. presidents had/have a daughter as the oldest child?" will prompt the system to sift out the keywords in the question--U.S. presidents, daughter, oldest child--and then limit the data shown to just that which fits those keywords. This is essentially how Watson works. Internet 2.0 would mean that all of this data in its pure unadulterated form would be available, and if we wanted to find an answer to something via an Internet search, we wouldn't have to rely largely on earlier people already answering those questions.
The thing is, most people don't realize until it is explained to them that the way we process language and information is NOT like Internet 2.0, but much more similar to a Google search. We humans loooove patterns: we organize information in them, make patterns out of nothing if need be, remember better if given mnemonics. We remember simple childhood nursery rhymes far better than passages of prose, because rhyme and meter organize the data of language into patterns that we have a much easier time memorizing.
When a human answers questions on Jeopardy, we don't do it as Watson does, sifting through all the data we possess and ranking possible answers in order of their likelihood to be correct. I don't even know how a human does it, because I haven't taken enough linguistics or cognitive science classes. All I know is that, thus far, a computer has not been able to replicate natural language processing.
There are some things that computers are not yet able to replicate, and one of them is the interactive experience between the reader, the text, and the world in which both of them exist.
I challenge you to think about that the next time you open a book.