IBM’s supercomputer, Watson, plays Jeopardy! for media attention

Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor
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Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

The once-great Ken Jennings, lord of all trivia, master of the Jeopardy! board, has been vanquished.
But has he fallen to a worthy challenger, a sage steeped in esoteric word clues and less-than-clever puns? No, my friends. Our hero was beaten by a heartless, unfeeling, inhuman monster.

This Grendel — bastard child of IBM, Carnegie Mellon, and other universities — showed no mercy to its flesh-and-blood opponents. In its dark Westchester County lair, the beast peered through the annals of thousands of years of human history. Faster than its hapless opponents could comprehend, the demon — called Watson by those brave enough to speak its name — deciphered clue after clue. But do not give up hope, friend reader. Watson, intimidating as he may seem, is not the first of his foul breed. He is no harbinger of the AI apocalypse.

The truth is that Watson is not inherently different from previous supercomputers. Last week’s Jeopardy! extravaganza was a media stunt — though a highly successful one. Watson’s victory brings us no closer to Skynet, to the Matrix, to the TechnoCore than we already were. His algorithms are more advanced and his hardware is more refined, but Watson does essentially the same kind of aggregate data analysis and language parsing that search engines and advertisers have done for years — not that Google isn’t scary enough.

IBM has said that Watson’s children will help in hospitals, for example, giving doctors advice in natural languages based on an unfolding situation. This is a great result for physicians, computer scientists, and IBM’s shareholders, but the Jeopardy! show really had little to do with these long-term goals. Watson’s victory was psychological. It is our generation’s Deep Blue, but with a television audience of millions. People expect Google to give them instant results with exactly what they’re looking for. They don’t even think about it.

But a game show? And not just any game show, but Jeopardy!?
Then they do think.

Some people might have seen the end of the Jeopardy! challenge as Watson’s victory. But that was a stunt. I have my own definition of a victory for Watson, and it’s more than knowing that Toronto isn’t a U.S. city. Victory for Watson means a renewed interest among the general public in computer science and artificial intelligence. It means that a student decides that he or she wanted to learn more about Watson and ultimately chooses to follow computer science as a career. It means that government funding for basic and applied research does not get axed while entitlements and defense spending grow.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama said that today is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Watson’s Jeopardy! appearance is no Apollo program. It will not inspire a generation.
But it might inspire a few people. And maybe that’s enough.