Meet Your New Robot Overlord (on Jeopardy)

So have you guys been following the rise of our new robot master?

I refer of course to IBM's Watson computer that is now in the middle of a three game Jeopardy match with the two winningest players of all time, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

If you haven't been following, Watson is IBM's 5 years in the making super computer. The goal of Watson was to essentially make the ship's computer from Star Trek, a computer that can give direct answers to questions stated in normal conversational English. On the surface it sounds like it should be simple enough, right? A computer has access to way more information than the average human and is tops when it comes to sifting through data quickly. Turns out though that more often than not it isn't having info that's Watson's problem. The clues on Jeopardy, like all language, are full of subtle meaning, irony, riddles and other linguistic complexities make teasing out the meaning of the question the biggest trick for the computer. Unless Watson understands what's being asked, it can't answer.

As an example, one question was,"From the Latin for end, this is where trains can also originate." Jennings gave the correct answer, "terminus." Watson answered wrong with "finis." Basically the computer saw the part about "From the Latin for end" which seemed to call for a cut and dried translation and missed the deeper, trickier meaning of the question.

Ultimately, I think the effort to make machines that match the abilities of humans only serves to make it clear how amazing we actually are and, honestly, how little we have to fear from a robot uprising. Watson  cost billions and took years to build. It is made up of ten server racks holding 90 servers and 2800 processor cores giving it the computing power of about 2800 very advanced computers. And with all that power in can hold it's own with folks sporting a mere 3 pounds of squishy gray matter.  Go team human!

(Keep in mind, I'm writing this Tuesday night and the final match is Wednesday. It's entirely possible that on Wednesday night, Watson trounces the humans, achieves self awareness and launches WWIII, killing us all and completely invalidating this blog post.)

So what do you guys think? Is trying to make machines in our own image a fool's game? Can we ever really make something that's smarter than us? Should we?

Jeff Hirsch
The Eleventh Plague
Coming from Scholastic, September 1, 2011

Find me at and @jeff_hirsch


Jonathon Arntson said...

If we do make something that's smarter than we are, I doubt we'd know it's intelligence capabilities until we are already gone.

Watson is freaky. Couldn't they at least have made it look like Jude Law.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

LOL! Actually, I think if the robots become self-aware, they will have to be (nearly) indistinguishable from humans, in terms of their mental abilities. Subtle. Scary as heck.

Angie Smibert said...

On my way to the gym yesterday,I heard a snippet of an interview with Jennings on NPR. He mentioned the strategy of the game as well as the nuances of the questions as plusses for the humans. On the flip side, Watson wasn't exactly intimidated by the fact he was playing against the all-time Jeopardy champs.

Unknown said...

These episodes of Jeopardy are so fun to watch but I was hoping for a Ken Jennings win. Before these episodes I was pretty sure Ken was the smartest person ever.

Mandy P.S. said...

I'm just really excited that we're one step closer to Star Trek computers. I really want to be able to talk to my computer and have it actually understand what I'm saying.

Watson is pretty amazing, despite his epically wrong answer at Final Jeopardy last night. No, Watson. Toronto is not a US City.

Tere Kirkland said...

LOL, I think Watson might need help from Skynet to do that, but still, I'll be wearing my most comfortable shoes until then, to be prepared for the eventual apocalypse. ;)

Thanks for the warning, Jeff!

Unknown said...

That's interesting. Just last summer I read a really intriguing book about the matter.
Now I'm not so sure anymore. Earlier I would have been pro human-machines. I think I still am in a way.
Nahno ∗ McLein

Unknown said...

I was watching this at work! Who won? I didn't get to see the outcome.

We all thought it was crazy how Watson was answering questions and speaking.

I personally find this a bit scary. Like iRobot scary!