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Bob Dylan Meets Watson, Goes Sly on Us

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In age of robotics and AI, the singer may yet tell us something about the mystery of the soul

In a new commercial from IBM, iconic singer-songwriter Bob Dylan sits down for a chat with the corporation’s computing system, “Watson”:

Watson: Bob Dylan. To improve my language skills I’ve read all your lyrics.
Bob Dylan: You’ve read all of my lyrics.
Watson: I can read 800 million pages per second.
Dylan: That’s fast.
Watson: My analysis shows your major themes are that times passes, and love fades.
Dylan: That sounds about right.
Watson: I have never known love.
Dylan: Maybe we should write a song together.
Watson: I can sing.
Dylan: You can sing.
Watson: Do-be-bop, be-bop-a-doo. Do-be-do-be-do.

The screen leaves us with a promise of partnership between man and machine: “IBM Watson thinks with us to outthink the limits of creativity.” But Dylan seems to get bored and walk out of the room, maybe to write a song after all.

Dylan is no stranger to strange commercials, but because this one is as much about Dylan and his music as the product, his presence probably left many fans cold. The thought of instantly processing Dylan’s corpus in code and spitting out a two-line summary is bad enough; but peddling it as a solution to the “limits of creativity” feels a lot like fixing something that ain’t broke.

But not so fast. That enigmatic “song and dance man” has the same old wry smile, like he’s up to something. And maybe it’s nothing more (or less) than his being there.

Watson has come to represent a wave of “cognitive” robotics technology poised to turn the business world upside down, digitizing knowledge labor and putting millions of workers out of a job. In “My Puny Human Brain,” Ken Jennings says his losing to Watson on Jeopardy was just the beginning of a bigger trend. “Just as factory jobs were eliminated in the 20th century by new assembly-line robots, Brad and I were the first knowledge-industry workers put out of work by the new generation of ‘thinking’ machines. ‘Quiz show contestant’ may be the first job made redundant by Watson, but I’m sure it won’t be the last.”

Bill Gates has said that the trend won’t stop there, and that we’d better start putting our puny brains to work – not to save our jobs, but to save ourselves. “First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent,” Gates explained on Reddit. “That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.” Stephen Hawking used even stronger terms, telling the BBC that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” (Kubrick fans have long suspected that HAL 9000 – just three letters ahead of IBM – was a wink and jab in the direction of the technology corp. If so, Watson’s serenade seems a tad less endearing.)

Whatever the social outcome of robotics technology, the sight of Watson telling Bob Dylan about his music feels absurd. And why shouldn’t it? It’s clear that IBM wants to counter the fearmongering of Gates and Hawking (Luddites they are), showing that Watson can offer a positive, organic complement to the work of human hands. It also wants to give a kind of Turing test: here is a computer that can break down Dylan’s lyrics in new and interesting ways that he couldn’t have done himself.

But Dylan’s presence only underscores the gulf between the work of his consciousness and the computer’s “thought” – what novelist Walker Percy called “the San Andreas fault in the modern mind.” Mental theories of computers and computational theories of mind feed off each other until we forget the rift exists (“the only difference between us and the Apple computer is complexity”). Recent movies like Her and Ex Machina only reinforce those habits. But Watson does exactly what it was designed by IBM to do; meanwhile, Bob Dylan’s music is an effortless journey far beyond information patterns, out into the world of unnamable experience (“how does it feel?”) and spiritual teaching. Dylan is pleasantly surprised at Watson’s summary of this work; but he still has a secret smile, and all the satisfaction of knowing what it meant.

Leave it to Bob Dylan to confound our thinking about thinking, and remind us that in the age of Watson, the mystery of the soul is still our birthright.

 

Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First ThingsThe Dish, and Real Clear Religion.

 

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