I read the other day that IBM plans on having a computer compete against human contestants on the TV show, “Jeopardy!” The claim is that if the computer beats people, it will be a big leap forward in the field of artificial intelligence. It doesn’t sound like a leap to me. We already know that computers can be faster than humans and that their “brains” can contain more information. So what’s the big deal? However, the people at IBM are quite excited about this. I assume “quite excited” translates at IBM to mean that some of the folks there are actually considering loosening their ties.
If IBM (or one of its clones) were announcing that it had finally made a computer that will last longer than a ball-point pen, then I might be excited. If they had come up with a computer that doesn’t crash the night before something important is due, I’d put on a tie and loosen it. I’d be impressed if they were demonstrating a new program that could tell the difference between e-mail from my mother and spam from “Swedish Porn And Farm Supplies.” But a computer that’s good at playing a game? Big whoop.
So I wasn’t all that impressed when I first read about this, but then I started thinking that maybe I was being too quick to judge. Maybe I’ll consider this computer amazing when I actually see it on the show. Once they bring it to Culver City and put it on the set, sandwiched between a male and a female contestant, maybe it will do things besides just answer questions.
Maybe the computer will be better dressed than the human contestants. Maybe it won’t make dumb wagers. Maybe it will be impressive during what the show’s producers refer to as the “interview portion” of the program and what we at home call, “the bathroom break.”
That’s the time when the contestants tell “fascinating” stories about themselves like, “One time I had a flat tire.” Maybe the geniuses at IBM will have programmed the computer to tell an anecdote that’s actually interesting, like a story about the time the computer was caught in a motel room fooling around with a DVD player.
One of the quirks of “Jeopardy!” is that the contestant is actually given the “answer,” and he or she must supply the “question.” For example, the “answer” might be “Claimed She Could See Russia From Her House,” so the correct “question” would be, “Who is Sarah Palin?” A response that would be technically correct, but not what they’re looking for would be, “Who is Mrs. Putin?”
I guess this kind of subtlety about giving an answer that is factually correct but obviously not what they’re looking for is one of the things that make it difficult for a computer to play the game. Understanding the vernacular of the show and the strange categories that sometimes appear are all things that aren’t easy for computers. It would be a slam-dunk if the show just asked questions like, “What’s the square root of the year President Obama was born, multiplied by the number of cosmetic surgeries that Joan Rivers has had?”
The computer that they’ll use isn’t like the one I’m using right now. It’s going to be a Blue Gene supercomputer, whatever that is. Most people will probably be rooting for the people against the computer. That’s just human nature. We often hate machines, hate talking to them on the phone, and hate having to deal with them when we forget our stupid passwords.
We love stories about a guy who can do math faster on his abacus than some computer. We shake our heads sadly when computers replace people at work. We shrug knowingly when we hear about a major computer mess-up like when students are told they’ve been admitted to a university that they aren’t even qualified to visit. So I predict that the audience will be cheering if that librarian from Omaha kicks the computer’s hard drive.
Gary Johnson, “Jeopardy!” head writer, said he wasn’t worried about the computer challenging “Jeopardy’s” human contestants until he read the last sentence in the news article about the challenge. That’s where computer scientist, Eric Nyberg said that he and his colleagues sit around after work and talk about ideas while “having beers.” Johnson’s responses was a big “uh-oh,” because “that’s exactly what we do around here after work.”
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from “Sesame Street” to “Family Ties” to “Home Improvement” to “Frasier.” He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover. He can be reached at email@example.com. Check out his Web site at lloydgarver.com and his podcasts on iTunes.