When world chess champion Garry Kasparov first faced IBM’s Deep Blue computer in 1996, he was certain he would win.
“I will beat the machine, whatever happens,” he recalled thinking, in a later film about the famous match up. “It’s just a machine. Machines are stupid.”
But much to Kasparov’s horror, Deep Blue won the first game. And while Kasparov rallied to win the match, that would be the last year he emerged victorious. Starting in 1997, he couldn’t seem to catch a break. Computers were officially better than humans at chess.
Later, Kasparov admitted that while he had played against computers in the past, it was during that first game in 1996 that he realised something was different about this canny machine. “I could feel — I could smell — a new kind of intelligence across the table,” he said, according to a story in TIME.
Today, the problem of chess seems like an easy one for computers to solve. But that wasn’t always the case; people were stunned by Deep Blue’s victory. “Here was a machine better than humankind’s best at a game that depended as much on gut instinct as sheer calculation,” wrote Jennifer Latson, in TIME.
Now, as IBM’s newer and much more advanced artificial intelligence system, Watson, enters domains like doctoring that were long considered the sole purview of humans, the disbelief sounds much the same. “That’s the Jeopardy-playing computer — it’s not going to solve cancer,” Norman Sharpless, an oncologist at the University of North Carolina, once said to a colleague, according to an account in Forbes.
Yet Watson is already working with doctors at MD Anderson to develop treatment plans for leukemia patients, a $US50 million initiative described in a recent Washington Post article by Ariana Eunjung Cha. (The system is slated for use at a total of 14 cancer centres in the US and Canada.)
At first, the computer seemed ill-suited to the task, which requires not only synthesizing a great deal of information but also using that information to make nuanced, tricky decisions. “When we first started, he was like a little baby,” Tapan M. Kadia, an assistant professor in the leukemia department at MD Anderson, told Cha. “You would put in a diagnosis, and he would return a random treatment.”
But just as Kasparov went from dismissive to humbled, the doctors at MD Anderson are finding that Watson is quickly proving its worth. The program they’re using, officially called Oncology Expert Advisor, is getting better all the time. It still makes plenty of mistakes, but sometimes, Kadia said, it suggests a treatment and his reaction is, “‘Oh my God, why didn’t I think of that?’ We don’t like to admit it.”
Patients aren’t always comfortable with leaving their care to an algorithm. And cancer care is much higher-stakes than a chess match. But it seems that just as Deep Blue once mastered something that seemed inconceivable without a human brain, Watson is gearing up to do the same, becoming the next in a line of artificially intelligent machines that have made our confidence in the uniqueness of our human ability just a little bit wobblier.
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