Thursday, February 17, 2011

Watson Wins.

It was man versus machine. But unlike the legend of John Henry, this time, the machine won. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. As the John Henry story goes, after beating the steel-powered hammer, he died of exhaustion. Imagine the result if Jeopardy! champions, Ken Jennings or Brad Rutter, had managed to defeat Watson. Maybe either man’s brain may have exploded. Ew.

There’s a lot of talk about the frightening aspect of computers taking over the world. In good-natured, good-humored sportsmanship, Jennings added, “I for one welcome our new computer overlords” along with his correct Final Jeopardy answer to close the tournament. Watson’s ability to understand and communicate via spoken language is the unsettling part. It did make “him” seem a bit human. 

Keep in mind is that it was humans, IBM engineers, who imagined and developed Watson in the first place. And ironically, the idea to test what a computer could do by competing on Jeopardy! evolved in 2004 when developers saw restaurant patrons suddenly leave their tables and head for the bar. Why? Turned out, it was to watch Ken Jennings’ ongoing and incredible win streak.

So as science fiction goes, man invents this incredible artificial intelligence that in turn, bests man and takes over the world. Watson makes it seem possible. Very possible. Technology taking over the world. In my estimation, it already has.

Okay, computers haven’t taken over so much as we are handing technology the reigns and submitting. Case in point: Software that disables your phone from texting while you’re driving. While I see its benefit in the case of teen drivers, I find it a tad disconcerting that adults (who, no doubt, all agree that texting while driving is dangerous), have to rely on an app rather than common sense in order not to text and drive. I find that much scarier than Watson.

It’s the proverbial tip of the iceberg. We’ve created technologies to which we’re now addicted and need even more technology to save us from ourselves. I guess if it means more safely sharing the road with a driver who cannot put down the smart phone long enough to pay attention to the critical task at hand, I’ll take it.

And Alex, I’ll take “Technology in Lieu of Common Sense” please, for $1000.00.

(Read Ken Jennings own account of the experience.)

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