October 25, 2011
Several years ago, a group of IBM scientists watched the television quiz show Jeopardy at a local bar and decided that they could develop the technology to beat a human contestant. They succeeded, and the system they built, Watson, is situated at the leading edge of a wave of breakthroughs in artificial intelligence that will lower health care costs and accelerate economic growth.
Watson achieved fame by defeating Ken Jennings in a highly publicized man-versus-machine showdown. Its next challenge is to jump start our stagnant intellectual progress, according to the economist Tyler Cowen.
Jennings and Cowen were speakers at the Singularity Summit on October 16 in New York. The conference was organized by Ray Kurzweil, an inventor of optical scanning technology and “futurist,” who foresees the coming of a singularity – the moment when artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence – in the not-too-distant future.
I’ll discuss IBM’s plans for commercializing the technology it developed for Watson, but first let’s look at Cowen’s view of our economic future.
Stagnation and its causes
Cowen, who teaches at the University of Maryland and writes a regular column on economics for the New York Times, said that the technological progress has reached “plateaus” in a number of areas, particularly over the last 40 years. The last truly great intellectual breakthrough, over a century ago, was the use of cheap fossil fuels in machines, which was the basis for developing automobiles, he said.
But the next such breakthrough – a flying car, perhaps? – is a long way off, according to Cowen.
His recent book, Stagnation, identifies a number of other sectors that are mature and un-developing, such as health care, education, and agriculture. We’ve gotten very good at producing good food at inexpensive prices, for example, and Cowen said there isn’t much opportunity for major breakthroughs on that front.
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