Joanna Bourke: La Fontaine’s Cat, Kafka’s Ape, and the Humanities

From faculty member Eirik Steinhoff:

This talk last fall by historian Joanna Bourke may be of interest for the trenchant ways in which she defines and defends the humanities (the larger context is a conference convened in response to severe managerial cutbacks in education in the U.K., which among other things triggered massive demonstrations).

In addition to posing a familiar question (“what does it mean to be human”) in a useful historical and disciplinary framework, she thickens her plot by juxtaposing Kafka’s “Report to an Academy” (a useful text from our anthology) with one of La Fontaine’s fables (which might be worth looking into).

Listen to Joanna Bourke at Birbeck Institute for the Humanities here>>

Read about the massive student demonstrations in the Guardian here>>

Coming this summer to CCS/Hessel Museum at Bard: Blinky Palermo

Palermo died in 1977, and afterward, his work didn’t much cross the Atlantic; most of it, in fact, remains in the possession of private collectors and museums in Europe.

Until now. This week, the Hirshhorn unveiled “Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964-1977,” an overview of the artist’s short career that’s all the more significant because it’s the first such exhibition of Palermo’s work in the United States.

Read the full review of this exhibition, which was put together by CCS Bard and will open at Bard on June 25th, 2011, in The Washington Post>>

Judith Butler: Who Owns Kafka?

Remember it was Kafka who wrote:

How on earth did anyone get the idea that people can communicate with one another by letter! Of a distant person one can think, and of a person who is near one can catch hold – all else goes beyond human strength. Writing letters, however, means to denude oneself before the ghosts, something for which they greedily wait. Written kisses don’t reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts. It is on this ample nourishment that they multiply so enormously. Humanity senses this and fights against it and in order to eliminate as far as possible the ghostly element between people and to create a natural communication, the peace of souls, it has invented the railway, the motor car, the aeroplane. But it’s no longer any good, these are evidently inventions being made at the moment of crashing. The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal service it has invented the telegraph, the telephone, the radiograph. The ghosts won’t starve, but we will perish.

Read the full article from Judith Butler in the London Review of Books>>

NYT: A Fight to Win the Future: Computers vs. Humans

A Fight to Win the Future: Computers vs. Humans
by John Markoff

Not only do designers face ethical issues … but increasingly as skills that were once exclusively human are simulated by machines, their designers are faced with the challenge of rethinking what it means to be human. Read the full article from The New York Times>>

Update (2/16): Watson won.

Update (2/25): IBM Senior Software Engineer Adam Lally will lecture at Bard on Thursday March 3rd, 2011 at 3:30pm in the Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito ’60 Auditorium.

Adam Lally: IBM’s Watson deep question answering system defeated two all-time champions on the Jeopardy! quiz show this February. Winning at Jeopardy! is a difficult challenge for a computer because clues are expressed in complex natural language over an extremely broad domain of topics, and because questions must be answered with very high precision and in a very short amount of time. In this talk I will discuss these challenges and our approach to solving them, and give a short demonstration of Watson. I will also discuss how the underlying technology of Watson may be applied to important applications such as in health care.

Update (3/1): Watson loses to Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ)!

NYT: Online Courses, Still Lacking That Third Dimension

Online Courses, Still Lacking That Third Dimension
by Randall Stross

For at least 50 years, the computer has been experimentally employed as the unflaggingly patient, attentive teaching assistant. In 1960, the University of Illinois created Plato, pioneering courseware whose offerings would eventually span the elementary-school through college levels. It and its software successors have supplied individualized pacing, frequent quizzing and help that is tailored to each student’s needs. Computer-aided instruction, however, has lacked a human touch. Read the full article from The New York Times>>

Richard Powers: “What Is Artificial Intelligence?”

What Is Artificial Intelligence?
by Richard Powers
(reprinted from The New York Times online)

In the category “What Do You Know?”, for $1 million: This four-year-old upstart the size of a small R.V. has digested 200 million pages of data about everything in existence and it means to give a couple of the world’s quickest humans a run for their money at their own game.

The question: What is Watson?

I.B.M.’s groundbreaking question-answering system, running on roughly 2,500 parallel processor cores, each able to perform up to 33 billion operations a second, is playing a pair of “Jeopardy!” matches against the show’s top two living players, to be aired on Feb. 14, 15 and 16. Watson is I.B.M.’s latest self-styled Grand Challenge, a follow-up to the 1997 defeat by its computer Deep Blue of Garry Kasparov, the world’s reigning chess champion. (It’s remarkable how much of the digital revolution has been driven by games and entertainment.) Yes, the match is a grandstanding stunt, baldly calculated to capture the public’s imagination. But barring any humiliating stumble by the machine on national television, it should.

Consider the challenge: Watson will have to be ready to identify anything under the sun, answering all manner of coy, sly, slant, esoteric, ambiguous questions ranging from the “Rh factor” of Scarlett’s favorite Butler or the 19th-century painter whose name means “police officer” to the rhyme-time place where Pelé stores his ball or what you get when you cross a typical day in the life of the Beatles with a crazed zombie classic. And he (forgive me) will have to buzz in fast enough and with sufficient confidence to beat Ken Jennings, the holder of the longest unbroken “Jeopardy!” winning streak, and Brad Rutter, an undefeated champion and the game’s biggest money winner. The machine’s one great edge: Watson has no idea that he should be panicking.

Open-domain question answering has long been one of the great holy grails of artificial intelligence. It is considerably harder to formalize than chess. It goes well beyond what search engines like Google do when they comb data for keywords. Google can give you 300,000 page matches for a search of the terms “greyhound,” “origin” and “African country,” which you can then comb through at your leisure to find what you need.

Asked in what African country the greyhound originated, Watson can tell you in a couple of seconds that the authoritative consensus favors Egypt. But to stand a chance of defeating Mr. Jennings and Mr. Rutter, Watson will have to be able to beat them to the buzzer at least half the time and answer with something like 90 percent accuracy.

When I.B.M.’s David Ferrucci and his team of about 20 core researchers began their “Jeopardy!” quest in 2006, their state-of-the-art question-answering system could solve no more than 15 percent of questions from earlier shows. They fed their machine libraries full of documents — books, encyclopedias, dictionaries, thesauri, databases, taxonomies, and even Bibles, movie scripts, novels and plays.

But the real breakthrough came with the extravagant addition of many multiple “expert” analyzers — more than 100 different techniques running concurrently to analyze natural language, appraise sources, propose hypotheses, merge the results and rank the top guesses. Answers, for Watson, are a statistical thing, a matter of frequency and likelihood. If, after a couple of seconds, the countless possibilities produced by the 100-some algorithms converge on a solution whose chances pass Watson’s threshold of confidence, it buzzes in.

This raises the question of whether Watson is really answering questions at all or is just noticing statistical correlations in vast amounts of data. But the mere act of building the machine has been a powerful exploration of just what we mean when we talk about knowing.

Who knows how Mr. Jennings and Mr. Rutter do it — puns cracked, ambiguities resolved, obscurities retrieved, links formed across every domain in creation, all in a few heartbeats. The feats of engineering involved in answering the smallest query about the world are beyond belief. But I.B.M. is betting a fair chunk of its reputation that 2011 will be the year that machines can play along at the game.

Does Watson stand a chance of winning? I would not stake my “Final Jeopardy!” nest egg on it. Not yet. Words are very rascals, and language may still be too slippery for it. But watching films of the machine in sparring matches against lesser human champions, I felt myself choking up at its heroic effort, the size of the undertaking, the centuries of accumulating groundwork, hope and ingenuity that have gone into this next step in the long human drama. I was most moved when the 100-plus parallel algorithms wiped out and the machine came up with some ridiculous answer, calling it out as if it might just be true, its cheerful synthesized voice sounding as vulnerable as that of any bewildered contestant.

It does not matter who will win this $1 million Valentine’s Day contest. We all know who will be champion, eventually. The real showdown is between us and our own future. Information is growing many times faster than anyone’s ability to manage it, and Watson may prove crucial in helping to turn all that noise into knowledge.

Dr. Ferrucci and company plan to sell the system to businesses in need of fast, expert answers drawn from an overwhelming pool of supporting data. The potential client list is endless. A private Watson will cost millions today and requires a room full of hardware. But if what Ray Kurzweil calls the Law of Accelerating Returns keeps holding, before too long, you’ll have an app for that.

Like so many of its precursors, Watson will make us better at some things, worse at others. (Recall Socrates’ warnings about the perils of that most destabilizing technology of all — writing.) Already we rely on Google to deliver to the top of the million-hit list just those pages we are most interested in, and we trust its concealed algorithms with a faith that would be difficult to explain to the smartest computer. Even if we might someday be able to ask some future Watson how fast and how badly we are cooking the earth, and even if it replied (based on the sum of all human knowledge) with 90 percent accuracy, would such an answer convert any of the already convinced or produce the political will we’ll need to survive the reply?

Still, history is the long process of outsourcing human ability in order to leverage more of it. We will concede this trivia game (after a very long run as champions), and find another in which, aided by our compounding prosthetics, we can excel in more powerful and ever more terrifying ways.

Should Watson win next week, the news will be everywhere. We’ll stand in awe of our latest magnificent machine, for a season or two. For a while, we’ll have exactly the gadget we need. Then we’ll get needy again, looking for a newer, stronger, longer lever, for the next larger world to move.

For “Final Jeopardy!”, the category is “Players”: This creature’s three-pound, 100-trillion-connection machine won’t ever stop looking for an answer.

The question: What is a human being?

Richard Powers is the author of the novel “Generosity: An Enhancement.”

Kevin Kelly talks about his recent book, What Technology Wants

from Faculty member Miranda Mellis:


Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired magazine and former editor/publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog (now free online), published a new book this past October: What Technology Wants. Reviewing his own book on BoingBoing, Kelly summarizes a few key points. “Technology is the most powerful force on the planet.” In fact, humanity is a tool itself, and, like all living things, technology evolves, demonstrating certain unconscious “urges” and “wants” in the process. Technology cannot be held back. But we can try to optimize its benefits for human culture, even while potentially trying to limit the amount of technology in our own lives. It’s a heady book, and, perhaps fittingly, Kevin Kelly pulled through Google in November and distilled his new theory of technology in a 40 minute talk. Watch it above…

Bonus: You might also want to check out this conversation recorded at the New York Public Library. It features Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson (author of Where Good Ideas Come From) in conversation with Robert Krulwich, co-host of Radio Lab.