The Humans Are Dead

I am an unabashed Jeopardy! fan. When I come across it on TV, I have to play, shouting at the TV like my grandmother. I think Alex Trebek should be president, if it weren’t for the whole Canadian thing. I understand that all of this makes me a huge dork.

And so, as a huge dork, I was naturally curious about the much-publicized Man vs. Machine exhibition match put on by Jeopardy! and IBM, pitting two former grand champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, against IBM’s newest supercomputer, Watson. Watson’s much-touted advances in the field of natural-language processing — essentially, the ability to understand and respond to regular patterns of speech, with all its subtleties and nuances — were on the line, and he didn’t disappoint, soundly trouncing the two humans. Underneath his answer to the “Final Jeopardy” question, knowing that humanity’s cause was lost, Jennings wrote, “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.”

A nerd after my own heart, Jennings wrote about the experience for Slate:

Indeed, playing against Watson turned out to be a lot like any other Jeopardy! game, though out of the corner of my eye I could see that the middle player had a plasma screen for a face. Watson has lots in common with a top-ranked human Jeopardy! player: It’s very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman. But unlike us, Watson cannot be intimidated. It never gets cocky or discouraged. It plays its game coldly, implacably, always offering a perfectly timed buzz when it’s confident about an answer. . . .

 

IBM has bragged to the media that Watson’s question-answering skills are good for more than annoying Alex Trebek. The company sees a future in which fields like medical diagnosis, business analytics, and tech support are automated by question-answering software like Watson. 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.

But there’s no shame in losing to silicon, I thought to myself as I greeted the (suddenly friendlier) team of IBM engineers after the match. After all, I don’t have 2,880 processor cores and 15 terabytes of reference works at my disposal—nor can I buzz in with perfect timing whenever I know an answer. My puny human brain, just a few bucks worth of water, salts, and proteins, hung in there just fine against a jillion-dollar supercomputer.

Jennings still has that advantage, at least — that and a sense of humor, an edge that Ben Zimmer in the Atlantic argues is no small thing. Humans should be safe for a while yet, so long as we don’t make Watson work for unreasonable hours

Margaret Cabaniss

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Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at SlowMama.com.

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