Ken Jennings, the “Jeopardy!” champion who lost a globally-watched three-day match of the TV game to the Watson computer, got it completely wrong when, upon acknowledging his defeat, he said, “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.”
All those headlines that said that the computer defeated a human are dead wrong, too.
Neither Watson nor Deep Blue, the computer that defeated world chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997, nor any other computer is our overlord. Watson “remembered” only what humans had programmed into it, and only answered questions through “thought processes” (called algorithms in computer talk) that a human had programmed into it. In other words, a team of humans using a very expensive tool beat a single human. Big deal!
We don’t consider cars, which travel both faster and further than humans can, to be our overlords. Nor do we consider guns and other weaponry as our overlords, although we usually defer to those who have them pointed at us.
Like the “Deep Blue” victory, the success of computer researchers in programming a computer to beat a human is stunning. It marks a milestone in our ability to extend our power to manipulate knowledge through machines. Keep in mind, though, that it entailed humans creating the algorithms the computer needed to supply questions beginning with the word “What is…” to statements and giving the computer a bunch of trivial facts.
Let’s hope the Watson victory doesn’t also represent a symbolic milestone in the abdication of human critical thinking. Unfortunately many people defer to folks with big computers without first investigating the knowledge base and ideological assumptions of the programmers, and that’s a shame. It’s all too easy to say that computers are smarter than we are and let them make decisions. In reality, though, all computers are programmed by humans so when you have a computer decide what book to read or gift to give a loved one, you are really having another human being or a group of humans decide for you, because it is their thought processes and the facts they select that are fed into the computer.
I hope that one day we replace these human-against-machine competitions with machine-against-machine battles. After the first time, it’s really no fun seeing a human race against a car, but it is quite exciting to see humans race other humans (which I love) or humans driving cars versus humans driving cars (which I hate, but which I admit is one of the most popular sports in the world).
Imagine a league for computers that play chess, “Jeopardy!”or Scrabble. In time, perhaps, the head computer programmers could attain the level of celebrity of those whom operate automobiles, such as Dale Earnhardt and Mario Andretti.
So let’s celebrate this victory of the human spirit and its unfathomable and indomitable will to create machines that extend its physical abilities. And let’s bend our heads to no machine.
One final note: On the same day that Google news reported 3,125 media covering a computer winning a game of “Jeopardy!,” only 198 reported that a new study provides incontrovertible evidence that human activity is resulting in increased storms around the world. The New York Times put the Watson-Jennings match on the front page, the very place it put that silly survey which a year ago said half of all weather personalities (none of whom have degrees in climatology and half of whom have not even studied meteorology) don’t believe in global warming. The study that proves that humans are driving climate change was hidden on page one of the international section. Once again, the real news is buried under trivia and ideology.