In the continuing epic conflict of man versus the machine, another battle is being played out this week on Jeopardy, as two of the intellectual’s favorite game show’s past champions test their brain power against a roomful of machinery named Watson. Watson is a computer built by IBM, their commercials tell us, not only to process information with lightning speed, but to deal with the subtle vagaries of human language as it is practiced by the folks that write the answers to which Jeopardy contestants must supply the questions. Watson’s opponents are formidable.
Ken Jennings is the holder of the longest winning streak in the show’s history. Brad Rutter has won the most money. They are quick with the thumb on the buzzer, and they know their U. S. presidents, Beatles people, and rivers of the world. Individually they are the great human hope. It is for them to prove once again that “ain’t no damn machine” can do what a man can do.
And even if machines can do what we can do, even if they can do it faster, even if they can do more accurately, it is still better when we do it. Back in the 19th century in the height of the Industrial Revolution, when it looked like there was little question that machines were surely going to replace most if not all human workers, because not only could they work more quickly and more efficiently, they never got tired and you didn’t have to feed them, humankind looked for and found its champions. Writers like John Ruskin defended imperfect human workers against the perfections of machines, by arguing that imperfection was a sign of the passion and love a man could put into his work, a passion and love of which machines were incapable. Imperfection was a sign that a man had tried to push himself to the limit. After all, how could you tell how far you could go if you stopped before you failed. “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp,” as the poet says. Machines settle for meager perfection. It is the glory of man that his work in imperfect.
A good theory? Perhaps, but not one likely to stand up to the demands of capital. Earlier the Luddites were breaking the machines that they rightly felt were going to take away their livelihoods, but they were fighting a losing battle against the inevitable law of the economic jungle: faster and cheaper equals better. Breaking machines wouldn’t do the job; the only way to stop the machines was to demonstrate that somebody, not nobody does it better, some man or woman could do it better.
Along comes a legendary steel driving man, John Henry. You’ve heard the song: John Henry worked at laying track for the railroad. But with the invention of the steam driven hammer, technology was threatening to make him and his fellow steel driving men obsolete, so John Henry decided to show the world that there was no machine could lay track better than a man. He challenged the “inky poo,” as the steam hammer is called in many versions of the tale, to a race. And John Henry was right, he beat that machine, only problem was he died in the process.
Now instead of the man challenging the machine, it seems the shoe is on the other foot (if Watson can be said to have a foot). Watson is the one doing the challenging. Watson is the one with something to prove. The trouble is unlike John Henry, win, or lose for that matter, Watson is not going to die in the process. No matter what happens, history seems to dictate technology always wins in the end. If Watson does well and loses, it will only spur further research. If Watson loses badly, well, it will only spur further research. If Watson wins, after the engineers finish saying “I told you so,” it will definitely spur further research. If there’s going to be any dying let’s hope it isn’t our surrogate John Henrys.
After the first of the three shows ending in the middle of the first round, Watson is tied with Rutter at $5000 and Jennings is still in contention at $2000. Watson has shown itself to be a formidable opponent, but not unstoppable. It doesn’t always beat the champions to the buzzer. It is not omniscient; it doesn’t have all the answers. Watson can make silly mistakes. When it buzzed in to give an answer to a question already answered incorrectly, it gave the same wrong answer. Someone seems to have forgotten to program the computer to listen to its opponents. Watson seems to be human after all. I can hear the song now: “Watson was a question answering machine.”