jennings robot01.jpg
Two humans and one machine are scheduled to resume their intellectual duel-to-the-death tonight on Jeopardy . Or is it two robots and one human? After

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Ken Jennings Is Too Charming and Intelligent to Be Human

jennings robot01.jpg
Two humans and one machine are scheduled to resume their intellectual duel-to-the-death tonight on Jeopardy. Or is it two robots and one human? After the live chat Seattle brainiac Ken Jennings just gave on The Washington Post forum, it's starting to look like Jennings may in fact be a machine as well.

I mean, no mere human could achieve this level of charm and wit while still remaining as enormously nerdy as Jennings obviously is. It just doesn't compute.

Our theory: Jennings is an advanced, cyborg version of Watson with a bio-mechanical shell and emotion and humor simulators--sort of the T1000 to Watson's T800 technology.

Let's look at some of the questions:

Q: Did the Watson Jeopardy experience have an "Open the pod bay doors, Hal" feel to it? It creeped me out a little.

A: Right, the circular Watson avatar looks a *little* too much like HAL's red light, right? I think it's reading Brad's and my lips.

When anyone mentions 2001 to them (or Terminator, or Matrix, or Tron, or . . . ) IBM prefers to bring up the helpful question-answering computer on Star Trek. C'mon, IBM! You just invented SkyNet! Own it!

Sure, Ken. Point the finger at the less sophisticated robot. Smoke and mirrors, I say!

Q: Hi Ken, thanks for taking questions today! Last night, when you answered a question incorrectly, Watson buzzed in and repeated your wrong answer. Do you know if this obvious defect in Watson's programming was fixed for later rounds? It seemed like a really glaring oversight.

A: Not an oversight: a known weakness. Watson is both blind and deaf to most of the events of the game (except the text of the clues and the correct answers once they're revealed, which it receives electronically) so it has no way of knowing what the last wrong answer was. It's a rare hiccup, so I'm sure IBM isn't pumped that it happened in prime time last night!

As you can see, Jennings' weakness detection systems are fully engaged.

Q: So, Ken, do you have a backup plan that just might involve slyly tripping on Watson's cord?

A: Alternately, you can just tell it a paradox like "This sentence is a lie!" and Watson will start to fume and freak out in confusion. This strategy brought to you by Captain Kirk, ca. 1967.

Star Trek references including character and air-date information? All while injecting some subtle humor? Humanity is truly doomed.

Q: I was surprised that you only got through the first round. I found too much of the first night devoted to IBM, like a long commercial. What is the format of the next two nights?

A: The contest is two games stretched out over three nights: another half game tomorrow, with the final game Wednesday. In addition to giving IBM a nice infomercial spot (if you buy a Watson 1.0 license for home use, you also get a Watson mouse pad and some steak knives!) the documentary spots help explain how the contest came together, why this truly represents an AI breakthrough, and so forth.

It reminds me of the "human interest" stuff that always clogs up Olympic footage. Revealed tonight: Watson hopes to win these games for its adorable little sister, who has leukemia!

He's here all night, folks.

Q: Ken, you're hilarious. Not only are you the top Jeopardy champion, you've also got the most personality. Any chance you'll write any more books? I read your first in practically a day, I loved it. Your daily trivia book also has an honored place in my bathroom. Next to the litter box.

A: I'd like to thank my mom for taking part in the chat! Love to you and Dad!

My next book, Maphead, comes out in September plug plug plug. It's about geography geeks of all kinds: antique map collectors, geocachers, pint-sized National Geographic Bee prodigies, etc.

Other books include The 10 Secrets of High Effective Cyborg Overlords and Converting Human Flesh to Energy for Dummies.

Q: I have already read plenty of doomsday reports for the blue-collar workforce that this technology could replace customer-service representatives, in-patient counseling, bank tellers, cashiers, etc. Do you think Watson could replace Alex Trebek? Would you be excited to be part of a game show where a computer asked questions to another computer?

A: I don't know if it's doomsday, but yeah, I think it's inevitable that lots of your question-answering day will eventually be re-outsourced from some guy in India to some piece of software.

That said, I don't think this means it's lights out for trivia or quiz shows. The analogy I use is track and field: Humans keep running races even though cars and trains have been faster than us for more than a century. It's all about the human psychology of the contest, not just the outcome.

Believe me, computers have been able to play Wheel of Fortune and The Price Is Right at near-grandmaster levels for years, yet those shows soldier on.

Yes, Ken. The shows indeed soldier on. But what of the humans? Will they too be soldiering on in the robotic slave pits of the future? Only you know.

 
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