Wednesday, February 16, 2011

John Henry Was A Pencil Pushin' Man

Edited and bumped:
Technology has displaced man in another field this week as IBM supercomputer WATSON is making minced meat of Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. The final segment of the challenge ends tomorrow, and while it's possible that the humans will win, WATSON's lead is nearly insurmountable, at $35,734 to Rutter's $10,400 and Jenning's $4,800.

The win for the computer will be bittersweet. It represents another John Henry moment, where the human spirit can't keep up with technology. Yet it is also a human triumph, as IBM engineers that designed WATSON are humans who have advanced computing to a new level. Let's just hope they don't work on a terminator project next.

Day 3 Results
The final day, a separate tournament produced similar results to day 2: $44,131 for WATSON, $19,200 for Ken Jennings and $11,200 for Brad Rutter.

However, the more I think about it, the more this contest doesn't seem fair. My reasoning is that Jennings and Rutter received verbal clues from the ever-smug host, Alex Trebak, accompanied by verbiage on the blue screened TVs on set. WATSON received a file feed. It strikes me as impossible for the timing of each clue to be exactly the same. I'm sure it is possible for IBM to build a machine that could read the screen and hear Trebek, but it wasn't done for this contest.

SAINT PAUL NOTES: Roger Ebert, in a poignant essay bidding farewell to important things in his life due to age and handicap, identifies an area where the machines can't beat us yet:

When first coming to terms with the fact that I would never speak again, I filled my head with denial and coping strategies. I would use my computer voice, for example. And I do. But that is no way to participate in the flow of a conversation, and I realize so clearly now that conversations are all about the flow, the timing, the music. Now that IBM's Big Blue has beaten a grandmaster at chess and promises to win at Jeopardy, I have a challenge that will grind it to a halt: I challenge Big Blue to tell a joke in a voice that has the tone and the timing, the words and the music, just right.