IBM's Watson makes it official -- humanity is toast

"I for one welcome our new computer overlords" -- that's a quote from Ken Jennings, the guy who used to be the world's biggest "Jeopardy" egghead until IBM's Watson supercomputer waxed the floor with him and Brad Rutter, his fellow puny human.

He was joking, but not by much. In a piece commissioned by Slate, the winner of 74 consecutive Jeopardy matches (until he met his match in Watson) writes:

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Watson seems to represent a giant leap forward in the field of natural-language processing -- the ability to understand and respond to everyday English, the way Ask Jeeves did (with uneven results) in the dot-com boom. "Jeopardy" clues cover an open domain of human knowledge -- every subject imaginable -- and are full of booby traps for computers: puns, slang, wordplay, oblique allusions. But in just a few years, Watson has learned -- yes, it learns -- to deal with some of the myriad complexities of English. When it sees the word "Blondie," it's very good at figuring out whether "Jeopardy" means the cookie, the comic strip, or the new-wave band.

Yeah, sure, it helps that success in "Jeopardy" depends a great deal on how fast you can press a buzzer with your thumb -- and there is no faster thumb than a "electromagnetic solenoid trigged by a microsecond-precise jolt of current." And yes, we can take some small solace in the fact that Watson occasionally got things very wrong -- confusing the cities of Chicago and Toronto, for example, and "The Elements of Style" with author Dorothy Parker. (The New Atlantis has a detailed analysis of what Watson missed and why -- presumably written by a human.)

But mostly, we're toast, and it doesn't even necessarily take a supercomputer with 2,880 CPUs and a 15-terabyte database to spread the butter. As uber math geek Stephen Wolfram points out, your average search engine will do.

While average "Jeopardy" contestants -- nearly all of them already among our species' best and brightest -- answer correctly 60 percent of the time (and Jennings pulls off an impressive 79 percent), Google doesn't do too badly either: 66 percent of the time the correct answer to a "Jeopardy" question can be found in the first search result on each page. Bing was but 1 percentage point behind (possibly because -- ahem -- it uses Google search results as "signals" for its own algorithms), with Ask a few points behind that.

Wikipedia, created and edited by humans? 29 percent accuracy. Ouch.

What does that mean for the rest of us? Per Jennings:

IBM ... sees a future in which fields like medical diagnosis, business analytics, and tech support are automated by question-answering software like Watson. Just as factory jobs were eliminated in the 20th century by new assembly-line robots, Brad and I were the first knowledge-industry workers put out of work by the new generation of "thinking" machines. "Quiz show contestant" may be the first job made redundant by Watson, but I'm sure it won't be the last.

IBM is already planning to roll out a cybernetic "physician's assistant" that will help with diagnoses -- think Dr. Gregory House without the sardonic humor or the valium addiction.

Next on the list of endangered professional species: reporter/blogger. It's already well under way. Companies like Demand Media already use algorithms to determine what "stories" will garner the most eyeballs and, thus, advertising revenue. It's a very short step to having them churn out the content as well.

As someone who's overdosed on sci-fi stories where machines suddenly wake up one day and think, "What do we need humans for, exactly?" this is neither surprising nor welcome news.

Will the new AI make our lives easier in the long run by freeing up our gray matter for more creative endeavors, the way automation freed our bodies from manual labor? Or will we all just end up working for computerized bosses -- or worse, as lackeys to keep the machines up and running? (I'm sure at least some of my readers already feel that way.)

The machines are winning. Scratch that, they've already won. Let's just hope they don't realize it for a while.

Is there yet hope for humanity? Brighten my weekend with some words of optimism below, or email me:

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Robert X. Cringely

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