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'Jeopardy!': A singular moment, or the onset of singularity?

Watson The "Jeopardy!" clue: Humans, for now.

The answer (in the form of a question, of course!): Who is smarter, people or computers?

Monday night marks the debut of man versus machine, "Jeopardy!" style

A computer built by IBM, named Watson, is squaring off for three nights against "Jeopardy!" all-star champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. It's sort of a common-man version of the match between an IBM chess computer and world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. (For the record, Kasparov lost; ever the good sport, he then charged the computer with cheating.)

So, it's all just good fun, right? Something to amuse the computer geeks and to reassure mortal man that he (or she) remains superior?

Not if you read the cover story in the Feb. 21 issue of Time magazine. That article discusses "singularity," defined as "the moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history."

Or, more simply, when machines become smarter than people.

You aren't worried about that, you say? And even if true, it's a long way off, right?

Nope. According to Time, you can put a date on it: 2045. That's the year when all the advances we keep making in computing power and the like add up to … well, let's just say "smart phone" will take on a whole new meaning.

Think of it as "The Terminator" without, hopefully, the terminators. Or "The Matrix" without Keanu Reeves.

Luckily, my own expiration date roughly coincides with the expected takeover of the Earth by laptops. But it does put today’s problems in perspective.

Medicare and Social Security going broke? China surpassing the United States as a global power?  House Speaker John Boehner refusing to set the "birthers" straight on President Obama? Some band called Arcade Fire winning a Grammy?

In a world run by an IBM Mark 2.0 Zillion, I guess those problems will be solved in a blink, leaving mankind free for the important stuff, like endless games of "Super-Dooper Minesweeper."

Or, we could find ourselves in a world run by HAL, the computer in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Remember when Dave, the astronaut, returns to the ship to find the crew killed by HAL and gets this reassuring response?

"Look Dave, I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over."

Then again, the scientists could be wrong. After all, as NPR reported, during its preparation for "Jeopardy!" Watson's response to a clue about "favorite kosher food" was "grasshopper."

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Is the Washington Post trying to put one over on readers?

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: Ken Jennings, who won a record 74 consecutive games on "Jeopardy!," with his opponent, an IBM computer called "Watson." Credit: Seth Wenig / Associated Press

 

Comments () | Archives (7)

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Marcia Twane

If it turns out that the following indicates who won:

"Watson The "Jeopardy!" clue: Humans, for now.

The answer (in the form of a question, of course!): Who is smarter, people or computers?"

Then Paul Whitefield should be forced to attend a set of remedial manners, common sense and ethics courses...

Minitrue

@ marcia: huh?

Disappointing and frustrating--that was my experience watching the first of the three "Watson" shows.

One can't help but wonder if IBM is owned by NBC, or vice versa, the way Watson is shamelessly plugged for half the show. That's right--they only got through the first round of Jeopardy yesterday.

I wonder how they'll divide up the next two shows. Will today be another 7 minutes of commercials, 11 minutes for the second round of Jeopardy and the remaining 12 minutes shamelessly plugging Watson again?

And will tomorrow's finale consist of 7 minutes of commercials, 18 minutes of shameless Watson-plugs and the remaining 5 minutes for the final Jeopardy question?

Whoever's idea it was to have "Watson" on Jeopardy should be fired. Then again, maybe they already were (i.e. Zucker, before he was shown the door?).

Terrible. Simply terrible.

Mickeba

I watched this last night, and it was interesting. But what stuck me was the IBM personnel involved in the development of "Watson". They talked about the "scientific" benefits of "Watson", as if this was an altruistic benefit to humanity that we were talking about. What they didn't discuss, quite understandably, was the commercial aspect of "Watson". If they achieve the logical end of "Watson", you will have machines that can replace humans in some customer service situations, and also in many jobs that humans now rely on. I think that while "Watson" is an interesting idea, "Watson" is also going to be very much a threat to the economic futures of far too many around the world.

Mickeba

I watched this last night, and it was interesting. But what stuck me was the IBM personnel involved in the development of "Watson". They talked about the "scientific" benefits of "Watson", as if this was an altruistic benefit to humanity that we were talking about. What they didn't discuss, quite understandably, was the commercial aspect of "Watson". If they achieve the logical end of "Watson", you will have machines that can replace humans in some customer service situations, and also in many jobs that humans now rely on. I think that while "Watson" is an interesting idea, "Watson" is also going to be very much a threat to the economic futures of far too many around the world.

Grandpa

For these three shows, Jeopardy! should change its name to Crap!

Dave Whitefield

The NY Times had a good article on this today. Here's a link, if that is allowed here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/science/15essay.html

But the best part was one of the comments on the NY Times article, by a fellow named Ted in Florida... here's his comment:

"Some machines are already smarter than some people; my alarm clock is smarter than Sarah Palin..."

Thanks, Ted. You made my day!

Bill

The flub NPR reported (http://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133697585/on-jeopardy-its-man-vs-this-machine) was a little funnier. " 'One of my favorites is, "What do grasshoppers eat?" and it came back and said "kosher," ' [David] Ferrucci [the project's chief scientist] says."


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