The US TV show Jeopardy is a quiz show in which contestants pit their general knowledge and obscure trivia against each other.
It is quite a geek-fest if you like that sort of thing, which I do. There is an interesting clash of concepts with such quiz shows- on the one hand the tone is often civil and polite and yet what is going on underneath all that is a ferocious battle of minds.
Anybody with access to BBC Entertainment on DSTV can spend endless hours of fascination watching outstanding examples of the genre- Who wants to be a millionaire? and Mastermind.
But I digress. Recently Jeopardy threw in an interesting contestant- a computer. IBM’s ‘Watson’ computer was pitted against the best jeopardy contestants. It was a clash of the titans- an epic battle between mankind and our new digital overlords.
Unfortunately for those afraid of a Terminator-style Armageddon driven by a revolt of the machines, the non-human won. It wasn’t an ordinary victory mind you- it was an efficient victory so crushing that the human participants all but left wearing sackcloth and ashes and wailing ‘woe is me’.
‘Watson’ was absolutely devastating- not surprising perhaps, considering that it contained pretty much the entire sum of human knowledge.
Another victory for computers (chess enthusiasts will remember the computer ‘deep blue’ beating Gary Kasparov more than a decade ago, an event that led to a lot more soul-searching than this episode will provide).
Commentators have used the opportunity to point to this as further proof that the human being has officially ceded their pre-eminent position to computers. As with the Kasparov defeat all those years ago, many see it as a ‘master becomes the student’ situation.
Human ingenuity has created something smarter and more sophisticated than humans themselves. Many- even those who don’t read a great amount of science-fiction- see this as a chilling story. There is a feeling that we don’t know our place anymore, and that our control and mastery of technology is slipping away from us.
But for me- and I’m not being a contrarian for the sake of it- this is more of a heartwarming story than a foreboding one. Ultimately- as with the chess computer- we created all the technology that is now conquering more human fields than ever before. It is not an us versus them story- it is a collaborative effort. Seeing a computer win a quiz game is a testament to the brilliance of mankind, and not just because of the awesome nature of the machines themselves.
After all, it is worth remembering that the computer had the entirety of Wikipedia at its disposal. As any’ netizen’ knows, Wikipedia is the collective knowledge of hundreds of thousands of users compiled together on one handy site. It is a truly awe-inspiring creation, and a very human one.
To beat our human guinea pigs, the computer had to use a collaborative online encyclopedia where anyone on the planet can make a contribution. Isn’t that a wonderful thought?
So let us not despair at Watson’s comprehensive victory against the best geeks we have to offer. The very fact that the contest was happening was a wonderful example of how far we have come and what we have achieved.
It was a battle-and a fascinating one- but it was also a reaffirmation. In effect, we pretty much beat ourselves. And that’s an inspiring story.