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

February 14, 2011 |  1:25 pm

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

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