Is Our Superiority Over Computers In Jeopardy?

At some point we’re going to need to reevaluate how society benefits from technology.

In what will surely be the most watched Jeopardy series in recent memory Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter take on IBM’s Watson starting Monday evening. Man, actually men, versus machine. It’s not as easy as it seems.

Watson, a supersized array of computer processors, memory and storage, will not have access to the Internet. No googling for answers!

It will also have to make sense of Jeopardy questions (really answers) which are often punny, obscure and related to equally punny and obscure categories! In other words Watson will have to reason to derive the correct response.

Last night Helaine and I watched NOVA on PBS which had a “Making Of” hour about this challenge. It’s online and worth watching.

“I think what’s making Watson successful is its internal architecture. It’s looking at so many different algorithms—thousands of different algorithms—some of them focused on understanding the question, weighting the various terms, looking at the grammar, the syntax, finding the phrases, the keywords, the entities, the dates, the times, trying to understand what it is being asked. And this, in itself, is a big challenge, where we use a variety of different technologies. But ultimately, what’s exciting about it is how it looks at many, many different possibilities and assesses them and builds confidence in a final answer to decide whether or not it’s correct and whether or not it wants to risk buzzing in on Jeopardy!” – David Ferrucci (Research Staff Member and leader of the Semantic Analysis and Integration Department at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center)

The computer is pretty good. It’s got more than a fair chance. It very well might win. I’m worried about the implications.

It is easy to become a Luddite&#185 in matters of advancing technology. So many jobs have been eliminated by labor saving advances. From the worker’s standpoint it’s easy to think the vast majority of benefit has gone to their bosses.

Much of what’s now done by machine used to be unskilled or semiskilled labor. Robots do the manufacturing, run the elevators and route your phone calls (which are very important us). All that used to be done by people. Robots could fly our airliners if it we’d let them!

Business benefits. Former workers sit on their hands.

Now with Watson’s leap forward into reasoned intelligence the scope of which jobs will be eliminated expands.

At some point we’re going to need to reevaluate how society benefits from technology. If there’s more productivity and less human performed work to be done maybe the concept of an eight hour day, forty hour week and two weeks of vacation should be reconsidered?

Will anyone benefit if business becomes so efficient it no longer needs or pays workers? To whom will business sell?

What Watson does on Jeopardy is only the beginning.

&#185 – The Luddites were a social movement of British textile artisans in the nineteenth century who protested – often by destroying mechanised looms – against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution, which they felt were leaving them without work and changing their way of life – Wikipedia