Last week, “Jeopardy” (or is it officially “Jeopardy!” with the punctuation? Whatever) gave us the long-awaited grudge match between two of its greatest champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, and IBM’s new supercomputer built specifically for game shows, Watson. Many people saw this as a showdown along the lines of Deep Blue’s chess battle with Kasparov. However, one couldn’t be blamed for being skeptical: chess has been emulated on computer systems for decades now, whereas answering cleverly-written questions in plain English hasn’t been tested so much until now. Could a computer, no matter how powerful or how many closets it took up, really compete with the complexity and speed of man’s intellect? Would we be made obsolete?
If we’re to take Watson’s performance on Jeopardy Punctuation Mark as any sort of sign, we’re fucked. Someone get John Connor on the phone, stat.
A brief summary of this whole shebang: Watson was set up in the middle seat for two games of Jeopardy! (presented over three episodes). He (and I’m using a personal pronoun because I’m scared of offending him) was hooked to a multi-terabyte data bank full of information about history, science, and movies starring Denzel Washington. A flat-screen with an animated globe and a voice so unsettlingly calm HAL asked him to leave the room were his window to the outside world. When the questions were read, Watson got them as a text file, as written, the moment they were read, and he had to buzz in physically with a solenoid attached to the real buzzer. We in the audience were privy to his three most likely guesses and level of confidence in them before the questions were answered.
So how did the bucket of bolts do? Stunningly well. Watson ran away with both rounds with a total of $77,147 (he liked to bet weird numbers), whereas Rutter posted $21,600 and Jennings posted $24,000 after an oddly disappointing first round. I guess Merv Griffin Enterprises didn’t fully realize the implications of pitting humans against two hallways of servers filled with everything people know and the ability to buzz in within nanoseconds. And his calm, computer-generated voice didn’t help; it was like being beaten at trivia night by a serial killer. Except, instead of being murdered, you were defeated on national television. And isn’t that worse than being made into a suit of skin?
Now, Watson’s road to making humans extinct wasn’t without its potholes. He couldn’t hear the other contestants’ (combatants’?) answers, so there were a couple of moments where he answered with the same wrong question one of the meatbags just gave. There were also a couple of oddball responses: one of them being “What is leg?” And Watson completely sat out of the “Actors Who Direct” category on the second night. The given answers were simply movie titles, so the clues might have been too vague for him to extrapolate answers from them. Or he just didn’t want to acknowledge Ben Affleck’s work for The Town.
Now, of course it’s ridiculous and alarmist to assume mankind is done for because some computer won a game show. I mean, a computer could win “Wheel of Fortune” and no one would bat an eye. Fuck it; a Colecovision could beat the contestants on “Wheel.” Program it to shout random letters and mess up the simplest puzzles and you’re there.
But in all seriousness, Watson was an impressive tech demo. It was a fairly seamless method of data retrieval. We’re not at Star Trek levels where people can just ask the computer anything and boom, there you are, but I can honestly see a use in government and the like where a question can be spoken, and the relevant research delivered on the fly. It augurs well.
Until, of course, Watson becomes self-aware and decides to target the White House to establish a new government. Then we really will need Christian Bale to intercept him and shout at him until his processors overheat.