Artificially Yours, Watson

When William Gibson wrote Neuromancer he introduced the word cyberspace into the American lexicon, and his images of giant Artificial Intelligences battling for cyberspace dominance captured the public imagination. I’m not sure that I understood then or now what AI is, but it makes for interesting reading.

In the 60s, not everyone shared that opinion: poet Adrienne Rich after attending a lecture by Nobel Prize winning scientist Herb Simon was so outraged by his cavalier attitude toward human intelligence vis-a-vi machine intelligence that she penned the following somewhat angry poem:

Artificial Intelligence

Over the chessboard now,
Your Artificiality concludes
a final check: rests, broods—
no—sorts and stacks a file of memories.
while I
concede the victory, bow,
and slouch among my free associations.

(Adrienne Rich, 1961)

Rich was probably referring to 60s era prototypical chess-playing computers used to illustrate the potential for machine intelligence. These crude computers eventually evolved into Big Blue (a specially engineered AI computer developed by Carnegie Mellon and IBM) who played and defeated world chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1996. Irregardless of the success of chess playing computers, Rich’s metaphor still resonates; engineering and literature are still poles apart.

IBM now has a new computer that is code named Watson; Watson has challenged the best of the Jeopardy winners to a “Final Round”. If Watson wins, maybe Big Blue will take up poetry; look out Adrienne Rich, IBM is gaining on you.


Day 8: Artificial Intelligence (1961). The full text of the Adrienne Rich poem is on page 238 of Machines Who Think by Pamela McCorduck (1972).


About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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