John Searle on Watson and AI

I’ve been getting back into watching Jeopardy! which is currently airing a tournament of champions. Today’s episode featured Ken Jennings, a legend on the show who won an unprecedented 74 games in a row.

As you might expect, there have been several mentions of the IBM-programmed computer Waston, which cleaned up on the show back in 2011, besting even Jennings during its reign of terror. When I first heard about Watson in 2011, I had stopped watching the show and I hadn’t yet developed my interest in philosophy or AI. But since then I have recognized the relevance of Watson to the philosophical issue of AI.

It looks like John Searle wrote an interesting piece on Watson in the WSJ back when it was still in the headlines. I’m not an expert on AI philosophy, but I think that Searle does an excellent job of demonstrating that Watson does not show that human understanding or thinking has exceeded that of humans, because Watson cannot think — it can only blindly respond to stimuli. It’s worth a read, and it’s comments are not.

For the record (although as I said I’m not an expert on the subject) I’m a proponent of soft AI, while some of the more ignorant and angry commenters look like gung-ho hard AI types.

Kudos to Taco Bell President Brian Niccol

The fast food chain’s headman recently participated in a Reddit Ask Me Anything session as a promotion for his company’s foray into the breakfast market. One Canadian asked when Taco Bell plans to expand its breakfast menu north of the border. The taco chief replied “when you guys take back Justin Bieber.” 

Taco Bell, you’ve got yourself a new customer. 

Thoughts on Community

I’ve been on a major binge of NBC’s cult sitcom Community over the past couple of days. Here are some of my major takeaways.

  • It’s one of the better sitcoms of the past decade. I’m basing this judgement on the first three seasons of the show, so perhaps my opinion of it will change for the worse after I watch seasons 4 and 5, which I have heard fail to meet the standard set by the first three seasons.
  • Britta is the weakest character and Gillian Jacobs’ portrayal doesn’t helpCommunity is an ensemble show which boasts a strong depth chart of primary and secondary characters, but Britta Perry is a significant weak spot. Britta is one of the show’s main characters, and she plays a self-righteous anarchist. There’s plenty of potential for humor in the character, but the writers don’t create a lot of funny situations based on her persona. Additionally, Gillian Jacobs isn’t a very good comedic actress. The show boasts strong writing, so Jacobs’ Britta occasionally elicits a few chuckles, but she has failed to carve out a distinctive personality like the rest of the core cast have with their characters, and all of her laugh lines could have been uttered by the show’s other characters to greater effect. While neither the character nor the actress portraying her do anything to drag the show down, they do nothing to improve it either. Kind of like Mark Wahlberg.
  • Chevy Chase was an idiot for leaving this show. I know that Chase’s character dies at some point, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. The writers had to kill off Chase’s character because he quit the show. According to star Joel McHale, Chase didn’t like the hours he had to work and he didn’t like the show’s writing. I also heard that he had beef with the show’s creator, Dan Harmon. It seems to me that Chase felt that his character — a smarmy old asshole with no sense of propriety — probably hit a little too close to home for Chase, who has notoriously thin skin. Yet again, Chase’s ego has sabotaged his career. Community was the first strong project that he had been a significant part of within my lifetime. That’s just shy of 25 years, folks. When you stop to take stock of his career up to Community, here is what is consists of: One season of Saturday Night Live, Vacation, Caddy Shack, and Fletch. That’s literally the entirety of the highlights. Chase has been famous since 1975, and in the almost 40 years since he has has been a part of four memorable projects not counting Community. That’s a little over one per decade, for the mathematically impaired. In between those four projects, he has participated in a whole bunch of bullcrap, including but not limited to Karate Dog and his notoriously awful five-week stint as host of his own late night show. I think a lot of Chase’s sad career trajectory can be traced to the major success he experienced in the mid-70s as a result of SNL. Chase was the show’s first breakout star, and he left after only one season to pursue a film career. In 1975/76, Chase was a hot item. He was hip, good looking, and his smug asshole persona was still pretty new. But then, Chase swallowed his own hype. He was successful for a couple of years after SNL, but it soon became clear that his comedic skill set was limited to pratfalls and mugging. After the mid-80s, he went through a quarter of a century without being part of a successful project, due in no small part to his reputation as an arrogant prick. Then, 25 goddamn years later, he gets involved in a credible project and lands a role suited to his strengths, and he fucks it up because of his prima donna attitude. It’s doubly a shame, because he was damn funny on Community. Chase has had a disappointing career, and he has only himself to blame for that.
  • Alison Brie is fantastic! Brie has been on a hot streak for the past couple of years, highlighted by her excellent role in Five Year Engagement, her recurring role on Mad Men, and highlighted by her excellent portrayal of the overachieving apple polisher Annie Edison on Community. With these projects, she has shown that she’s capable in both dramatic and comedic roles. It’s sometimes hard to find such a beautiful girl funny, but Brie pulls it of with ease in Community. She captures her character’s foibles while simultaneously making her warm and endearing — not to mention adorable. I hope she has some good years left in the tank, because she’s cemented her status as one of my favorite young actresses.
  • The series has incorporated the best elements of recent sitcoms that have come before it while managing to define its own voice. Community blends the self-referential meta-humor of Arrested Development with the fast-paced delivery and pop-culture lampoonery of 30 Rock while retaining a distinctive flavor all it’s own. They say that clever borrows while genius steals, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Genius manages to steal some things and place them in a new context along with other new elements. While it might be a little over the top to declare Community genius, it certainly has genius moments.
  • Series highlight: Remedial Chaos Theory season 3, ep. 4). This is one of the best, most adventurous episodes of any sitcom that I have ever seen. This episode finds the show’s seven core character gathered at a housewarming party for Troy and Abed’s apartment and a game of Yatzee. As the group gathers around the dining table, a pizza man arrives and someone has to go downstairs to pick up the food. No one volunteers, so Jeff Winger (played by Joel McHale) decides to leave it to chance. He takes one of the die from the board game and declares that each group member will receive a number starting with one immediately to his left. Whose ever number he rolls will have to get the pizza. The group agrees, but before Jeff rolls the die Abed comments that his die roll will create six alternate timelines. Jeff dismisses Abed’s comment before tossing the die in the air. The audience is then treated to the results of the six different two-minute long scenarios created by the results of the die toss one by one. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I will say that the scenario where Troy gets the pizza features some of the darkest, most hilarious physical comedy I’ve ever seen. This episode was truly impressive, because events in each scenario set up gags which are executed in other scenarios. The result is even more impressive when I stop to think about how difficult this episode must have been to create. If you’re new to the show, this probably isn’t the first episode you’ll want to watch. You should warm yourself up with a couple of earlier episodes until you’re comfortable with the personality of each character and the dynamics of their internal relationships (don’t worry, it’s not Game of Thrones complicated but it does take some getting used to). But if you have to invest three or four hours watching the show to get comfortable with it, I would say that this episodes will be well worth it.