“I, For One, Welcome Our New Computer Overlords…”

The Middle East is aflame with revolution.  Members of Italy’s fairer sex are fed up with their prime minister’s scandals and have put him in il canile.  Music fans unaware of music outside of Lady Gaga are still up in arms over Arcade Fire winning Best Record at the Grammys.

The conflict I’ve been most preoccupied with the past couple days, however, is that between man and machine.  Watson, IBM’s gargantuan of gigabyte, recently pitted its hardware against mankind.  The arena of battle: Jeopardy.  The seminal trivia game show just wrapped up a three-day contest among Watson and his (its?) two human competitors.

Watson’s opponents were by no means pushovers, mind you.  Carbon-based and full of swagger, they included Brad Rutter, one of the show’s all-time highest-payout players, and the notorious Ken Jennings, famed for his 74-game win streak.  Up against such formidable opposition, however, Watson leveraged every bit of his seven mega-processors, so large they had to be stored remotely.  By the end of the marathon tete-a-tete-a-tete, Watson had outplayed the humans, finishing with $77,147 (he/it displayed an eerie affinity for 7s) to Rutter’s $21,600 and Jennings’s $24,000.

I don’t know about anyone else, but this is almost as disconcerting as it is astounding.  True, Watson is more Deep Blue than Skynet, but Jeopardy poses a truly unique challenge for artificial intelligence.  This is not Wheel of Fortune, in which a desktop can accurately compute the missing letters of commonplace words, cross-reference with statistical analyses, and arrive at the proper answer before Pat Sajak can say “spray tan.”  Jeopardy depends on countless linguistic nuances, puns, metaphors, portmanteaus, vagaries, and innuendos that make English (or any language for that matter) the final frontier, aside from feelings, for machines.  To see firsthand how astute Watson actually is, try him/it out for yourself.

Not that Watson was flawless.  The show was set up so that those watching from home could see the top three possible answers spit out by Watson’s gaggle of motherboards, often to amusing results.  The final scores brush over several “rookie” missteps: in response to a question about non-dairy creamer, Watson almost opted for Paula Creamer, an LPGA golfer, before settling on his/its response of “milk.”  Then, Final Jeopardy.  The category was “US Cities”: ”It’s largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest for a WWII battle.”  Watson answered “Toronto” (but, beholden to his/its affinity for the number 7, Watson only lost $947 on the slip-up).  Neither moments that Isaac Asimov would find illuminating, to be sure.

Which leaves me hopeful, for now, that computers, though they can play the game well, will remain playing the clown.  There is no frustration greater than that with Microsoft Windows’ quitter mentality when one of its programs is unresponsive and has to close.  Sports is still our purview too.  A basketball game played by ten Tin Men is a basketball game I don’t want to watch.  And one thing we humans definitely have working in our favor is the fact that, if exposed to water, we don’t erupt in a cobweb of sparks and flames, as kind-of-cool as that kind of would be.  If you are hoping to rise up, overthrow mankind, and rule Earth with binary despotism, you best get acclimated to one of the most primordial substances on Earth.  That, at the very least, is elementary, my dear Watson.

I'm sorry, not as scary as a robotic Alex Trebek


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