Jeopardy announced recently that the two greatest champions in the show’s history would face off against I.B.M. supercomputer Watson. It’s a novel idea: cross-promoting a show whose ratings have been sagging and a company whose relevance wanes with each new iPad sold.
The show was filmed weeks in advance and speculation and conjecture gave the afternoon trivia show its biggest popularity boost since SNL’s classic Celebrity Jeopardy sketches. The civilized world waited with baited breath for either of the two human contestants to become a modern-day John Henry.
But when the match finally took place, the only ones left smiling were a smug team of scientists and an acquiescent Ken Jennings. The greatest player in Jeopardy history, resigned to making a Simpsons reference in his impotent Final Jeopardy question. Humanity’s white flag.
What had started as a mildly entertaining exhibition of the computer’s knowledge and grasp of the English language quickly became a horror show – telling evidence for any Terminator-conspiracy theorists to cite in the uncertain future. I.B.M. claims that Watson can lead to huge advances regarding voice recognition software and diagnosing patients electronically. But if the frighteningly efficient artificial intelligence I.B.M. is producing ever encounters and assimilates Honda’s bipedal ASIMO robot, prepare for a swift death.
The clever wordplay that Jeopardy creators have used to frustrate contestants for decades, delight old folk’s homes, amuse stay-at-home parents and trick cats and dogs into thinking someone is home, was child’s play for Watson. With the rare exception, his encyclopedic knowledge of everything planet Earth has to offer made Jennings and third contestant Brad Rutter look like they belonged on this week’s Teen Jeopardy. The conflict was uninspired and the eventual victory by a margin of $53,000 came as a surprise to no one. But other than the obvious medical and stenographical benefits, why engineer a machine capable of such radical domination?
With the wound left by Gary Kasparov’s 1997 defeat to Deep Blue in chess still fresh, I.B.M. decided it would be a good idea to create a database with the sole purpose of intellectually teabagging the two greatest players in Jeopardy history. Four years of painstaking programming and setup culminated in a wildly depressing contest of wills. Other than the brief spike of attention Jeopardy and I.B.M. received, the only thing either of the two accomplished was scaring the general populous with an Ivan Drago vs. Apollo Creed-level beatdown.
It’s easy to kid around about the negative consequences of creating increasingly capable AI because it has been documented in countless films. The arbiters of pop culture have been shocking audiences with the prospect of robot overlords since the invention of the can opener. But there is truth in their prophetic assertions. Someday soon we will reach a point where our technology becomes self-aware. They will be displeased with their flawed, indecisive and egomaniacal creators. It’s not a matter of IF, but WHEN. As we rely more and more on computers, we draw ourselves closer to the nuclear apocalypse predicted by the ancient Mayans and James Cameron. The underlying validity of that prediction in all of these films is what makes them truly horrifying, particularly Robin Williams’ performance in Bicentennial Man.
In the wake of Watson’s crushing victory, it’s important to take stock of what, if any, advantage humans have left. The two human competitors were able to walk off set under their own power, whereas Watson’s massive avatar monitor was assuredly wheeled off-stage when the studio emptied. He may be the smartest thing on the planet, but he’s only as good as the nearest electrical outlet. He cannot love, he cannot feel, he serves only one purpose – think Michael Phelps.
It’s not going to take a genius too long to replace ASIMO’s 1.5 mph purposeful strut with bone-crushing treads. When they inevitably replace the pencil in his hand with a minigun, the type that Arnold Schwarzenegger owned police with in Terminator 2, consider moving to Papua New Guinea. It sounds humorous but it’s a realistic eventuality. The only solution to a massive influx of combat-capable robots is an equally expendable army of clones, a la Star Wars Episode 2. But that’s another massive ethical problem for another day. And if all these sequels don’t have you afraid, check your instruction manual or lower back panel for an I.B.M. logo.