In the unending war between man and machine, I think I’m doing pretty well. I mostly understand how the blu-ray player works, I know that unplugging my phone when it’s updating software will turn it into a pretty but inoperable brick, and I once beat a printer to death with my bare hands when it became clear that its paper-feeding issues would only ever result in my weeping with fury. But now I am eyeing my laptop with suspicion, because I have just finished watching Jeopardy on YouTube.
Jeopardy – on the offchance that you like to leave the house from time to time – is an American quiz show in which the host poses an answer, and the contestants have to guess the question that fits it. The questions are full of wordplay and oblique references: winners need to be able to unpick the cryptic question then remember the answer, at speed. And this week, IBM has pitted its supercomputer, Watson, against two of Jeopardy’s previous big winners.
If you’re feeling smug at this point because computers might be able to play chess or chequers, which are purely strategic, but won’t have a hope when it comes to identifying an art movement from a reference to Braque, think again. Watson is pulverising the opposition: at the time of writing, he has $35,734 to Brad Rutter’s $10,400 and Ken Jennings’ $4800.
He is, obviously, quicker than they are. And he should be – he’s the size of ten refrigerators, he doesn’t get nervous, and he isn’t trying to remember a fact buried under decades of other useless information about dentist appointments, dry-cleaning and cat litter. He can also make complex calculations about how much money to risk in nano-seconds.
But far more terrifyingly, he can work out the clues. In practice rounds, the following question came up: ‘A garment worn by a child, perhaps onboard an operatic ship?’ Before his rivals could even buzz in, Watson had answered, ‘Pinafore’. In other words, he’s not just quick, he doesn’t just know a ton of facts, he can also unravel a reference to Gilbert and Sullivan in a heart-byte. If this doesn’t give you the wig, then you haven’t spent enough time watching Space Odyssey (with evil HAL), Wall-E (evil AUTO), or War Games (evil WOPR), wondering what humanity will do when the toasters finally turn on us.
One small ray of sunshine, as I pack everything digital into a box and dump it in a nearby skip, is that Watson is philanthropic – his human rivals promised to donate half their winnings to charity. He’s giving all of his away. So he does appear to be benign. For now.