Tuesday, February 15, 2011


I finally saw The Social Network the other day, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn't learn a damn thing, but it was a fun fictionalized tale of modern empire building. Plus, it had a really catchy Trent Reznor soundtrack. Aaron Sorkin's West Wing, rapid-fire, Abbott and Costello on meth dialogue was preposterous and got really annoying after awhile, but overall an intriguing character study (although, from what I can tell, a completely made up character). After watching it, I wanted to run out and buy a hoodie and some flip flops and create the next virtual drug that the world will become addicted to. Facebook has truly changed the course of human history. It has permanently altered how people interact globally, and in the recent case of Egypt, helped overthrow a government. First by helping to organize and rally support, and then by spurring people to action once the regime tried to deny people access to it. Technology, computers, and the internet are expanding at an exponential speed that not even the most prophetic sci-fi writer could have imagined. The cyber revolution will have a bigger impact on humanity than even the industrial revolution did.
That's why it was with curiosity, chagrin, and resignation that I tuned in last night to see the latest computer programming milestone. A computer that can play Jeopardy! against the best champions of all time. I have mixed emotions about these "challenges." Actually, it's not mixed, I just hate them. As an avid chess player, I was dismayed when Garry Kasparov's match with Big Blue was announced. Kasparov had beaten an earlier version of Big Blue, and now IBM was back with an updated version that had been basically designed exclusively to beat Kasparov. Big Blue had every game that Kasparov had ever played programmed into it, while Kasparov didn't have any of Big Blue's games to study to see how it "thought" and played. Kasparov lost the second game of the match in a dubious fashion and became infuriated and basically threw the rest of the match playing recklessly and angry. He had an extremely uncharacteristic meltdown and lost the match in a tantrum-like flurry of bad play. Chess is a mentally grueling game with subtle and intense emotional aspect that is completely removed in a computer. It is the pressure and mental stress of chess that makes it such an enduring and beautiful human endeavor. Sure a computer can analyze millions of moves per second, but if Big Blue played Big Blue, it would be draw, draw, draw, draw, on and on. There's no excitement in that. The heart of chess is two human brains straining against each other in total mental war. A cold hard computer can never replicate that.
When Jeopardy! announced that the IBM computer Watson was going to challenge Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, I thought "Great. Here we go again. They're going to 'prove' that a computer is 'better' at yet another thing I love." I prepared for the worst, but hoped for the best. After one day, Watson is tied with Brad, which is better than I thought would happen. The funniest moment of the show was when Ken rang in and guessed the 1920's for the decade that crosswords first appeared (also my guess). After Alex said that was wrong, Watson rang in and guessed..........the 1920's. The look that Ken turned and gave the Watson avatar screen standing next to him was priceless. Totally made the show.
As for the other questions that this challenge might answer (or answers that it might question in the case of Jeopardy!) are as follows: Can a computer be programmed with all the accumulated facts in the course of human history? Yes. Is a computer faster at reading an electronically delivered text question than a human? Definitely. Can a computer "ring in" faster with an electronic cue than a human eye to hand reaction? You betchya. There. I just answered all those questions and I didn't need four years, millions and millions of dollars, and a fucking three day infomercial for IBM to prove it! I'm surprised that Alex wasn't wearing a god damned trucker hat with IBM plastered on it. The argument that they learn so much by developing these projects is bullshit. Just do the research for useful projects and learn from that. Watson doesn't even have voice recognition! What the fuck? Even cars have voice recognition these days! Besides, Watson already exists. It's called Google.
So congrats IBM on a clever marketing ploy.
Will I watch the rest of the match? Yes.
Am I impressed?
What is no.

Postscript: Watson went on to destroy Ken and Brad in day two, but then in Final Jeopardy! guessed Toronto when the category was U.S. Cities. How the fuck does a computer who has been nailing complicated questions all day not even guess a city in the right country????????? (the number of question marks indicates my level of incredulity) How is there not a fail safe programmed in to keep Watson from guessing an answer that isn't even a viable option? Now, not only am I not impressed, I smell a rat.

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