The Day a Computer Destroyed All Humans

February 15, 2011

Brit Trogen

... On Jeopardy!. It was yesterday, for those of you not following the goings-on of artificially intelligent game-show contestants. For the first time, IBM's supercomputer Watson faced off against (human) Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. And as of the end of Day 1, soundly defeated them.


This event inevitably draws comparisons to IBM's last great foray into human gaming, when Deep Blue defeated Russian Grand Master Garry Kasparov in a six-game chess match in 1997. But the accomplishments are worlds apart. While chess is essentially a game of probability and math (not a far stretch for a machine), Jeopardy! requires complex knowledge of language: puns, wordplay and syntax, not to mention an encyclopedic knowledge of, well, pretty much everything. And language has always been a bit of a sticking point for machines.


The English language is riddled with holes, and among other things relies heavily on emphasis. A robot seeing the phrase "She stole green earrings from her friend?" could interpret it seven different ways, depending on which word the emphasis falls on (e.g. She stole green earrings from her friend?), whereas humans naturally notice the more important words (stole, friend). 


There are also an infinite number of ways to ask questions with nuance and wordplay, regardless of how well you know the data. This is why IBM researchers focused on algorithms to help Watson analyze and interpret questions on its own. According to the principal investigator on the project, David Ferrucci, Watson is a "deep question and answer machine," with the potential to utterly change the way people interact with computers. 


Science in Seconds IBM


It's a big step for computing, but there's still quite a long way to go. Watson received all Jeopardy! clues via text, which is a less-than-useful mode of communication if you're trying to get your robot butler to hand you the caviar. If you're feeling a little inadequate as a species, there are still games you could conceivably challenge any supercomputer to and kick their shiny metal ass, like the ancient Chinese game Go. Computers facing off against top human players can only win when the human is given a nine stone handicap, and even that's a major milestone.


And if the next IBM challenge is an oral Jeopardy! match, I'm quite confident our humanbots will do some more serious damage. So you win this time, computers. Only this time...



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