Daily Double-Take: the Friendly "Face" of AI
by Christine Mitchell — McGill University
June 20, 2011 – 00:00
Talk of machine intelligence follows a familiar, adversarial script, rehashing arguments over human sense and potential algorithmic sensibility. But this misses a subtler story: how the "figure" of AI has been drawn and redrawn via mass media spectacle. The 1997 chess faceoff between Russian grandmaster Kasparov and IBM’s Deep Blue was a sombre and serious "battle to the death," its studio set decorated like the living room of an intellectual sophisticate, lined with bookshelves, leather upholstered chairs and oriental rug. Deep Blue was largely out of sight—the players hunched over the chessboard, a screen on the IBM side silently delivering move instructions. While chess served its purpose in ‘97, this ancient and obscure logic contest, engaged in by Cold War supermen, is out of step with the task now at hand: reconfiguring the popular imaginary to accept an unthreatening, mass consumer-friendly AI. A "battle of wits" between IBM computers and favourite Jeopardy! champions provided the perfect venue—a popular, prime time, celebrity hosted, "everyone can play" trivia game—for reintroducing the public to a friendlier, workaday AI.
On Jeopardy!, Watson takes centre stage. Instead of a backroom manipulator, we’re introduced to a computational child prodigy-in-training. IBM’s development team exhibits wide-eyed amazement at what Watson can do, taking equal pleasure—like ultrahip parents—in his comic failures ("Crazy kid!"). Mistakes are all part of the learning process, and this kid’s backend server bulk is nothing to be ashamed of, either. Other tricks help reconfigure AI’s public persona, positioning him among humans, not against them. This is achieved by humanizing Watson—through proper name, voice, and an avatar that exposes and explains his computational physiology. While these humanizations are technological, they are already normalized through viewers’ consumption habits and tastes; that is, "smart" technologies are already among us, so text-to-speech software, screen technology and info-visualization graphics—which make Watson who he is—are already in use, trendy or suitably "cute." The threat of machine intelligence is mitigated by making Watson a student—of Jeopardy! games past, of language and of world knowledge. Interacting with the wise and grandfatherly Alex Trebek makes Watson a harder-edged Elmo, sharing his thirst for knowledge without the cotton stuffing.
But is Watson the only one being trained here? To what extent should the viewing public be concerned about being too easily primed for a future filled with Watson-style AI—from enterprise data management and interpretation to medical diagnostics, key applications being pushed by IBM?
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