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Posted at 2:44 PM ET, 01/19/2011

Watson vs. the world: Jeopardy!, Palin, and the rise of ignorance

By Alexandra Petri

Last week, a computer named Watson handily beat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a practice round of Jeopardy!.

Designed over many years by IBM, the computer is the size of ten refrigerators and uses a complex array of algorithms to respond to questions posed in a more natural language -- if you can call the language used by Jeopardy! a natural language.

But the Watson computer has a unique ability I wish could be replicated in humans: The ability to sense when it does not know things. It can project uncertainty.

Clearly, it has some evolving left to do.

If Watson doesn't feel confident about what it's about to say or senses it has no idea what it's talking about, it doesn't say anything at all. Contrast this to my own performance the time I appeared on Jeopardy!. Sure, I dominated the math jokes category (what's the circumference of a pumpkin divided by its diameter?), a feat I assume is still difficult for computers to replicate, since if we'd actually created a computer capable of generating bad puns, I assume I would have been terminated by now. But I kept missing things. I concluded the game in a blaze of misplaced confidence, wagering everything and then responding, "Who is that dude?" to a Final Jeopardy! question with an answer that turned out to be about Dan Brown.

My problem wasn't want of confidence, of course. As a human being, I understand that having no clue about something in no way precludes my talking about it. In fact, this ignorance is frequently a boon, since my discourse is not encumbered by facts or statistics, which are at best dull and at worst conclusive. Using real facts to make a cogent, well-argued point is so high school. In real life, there's no right or wrong -- just right or left.

It's not that I'm always right. It's just that I'm never wrong. I once took a world tour because I was trying to drive to Baltimore and never stopped for directions. Sure, as I rowed the boat across the Atlantic, I had a flicker of doubt, but I'm sure this was ultimately the quickest way. Admittedly, I once made an erroneous remark about something in 1994, but that was because I had been misinformed by my aides.

I have no regrets. I never sit down. I never shut up. Why would I? If it weren't for subjects about which I know nothing, I'd have no conversation at all!

Socrates said that the beginning of wisdom was knowledge of your own ignorance. Watson has this. But he misses the point: These days, ignorance is a badge of pride. "I'm ignorant," we say. "Great!" everyone says. "Me, too!"

Ignorance is what binds us together. And we can't be blamed. We aren't learning anything. A study just came out indicating that, in two or four years of college, we don't make any kind of improvement on measures of critical thinking, writing, or reasoning. We don't take courses that require more than forty pages of reading a week. Foreign languages? Please. We're not ignorant -- we're just trying to save room in our heads in case we might need it later. But not too much later -- some of us actively think the world might end in 2012.

And perhaps because ignorance is the one thing that binds us, the link between ignorance and uncertainty has gotten lost. "I may not know anything about this," we yell, "but I'm an expert." Ignorance is bliss.

I watched a video lauding Sarah Palin recently. "She's not a Harvard lawyer / But she knew what the Founders meant," an elderly man sings. I'm not saying she would know what the Founders meant if she were a Harvard lawyer -- the Founders don't seem to have a direct link to anyone but Antonin Scalia -- but it's the classic jump: I don't know anything about this, but I'm an expert!

But it's on both sides of the aisle. Immediately after the Tucson tragedy, everyone began pointing fingers at Palin. "I don't know anything about this," they shouted, "but I'm an expert, and those gun-sight maps seemed iffy to me."

Watson wouldn't have done this.

I imagine he goes to parties with other computers and only pipes up when he actually knows what he is talking about. He has facts. He has proof. He has information. He's able to carry on a civil discussion because he knows what he doesn't know.

We wouldn't be able to stand him.

By Alexandra Petri  | January 19, 2011; 2:44 PM ET
Categories:  Epic Failures, Petri, Reality? Television  | Tags:  Sarah Palin, kids these days, reading  
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Next: What was so wrong about Alabama Gov. Bentley's remarks


Watson may be pretty smart, but I hear his answers sometimes are so far off that people laugh, like when he said the First Amendment didn't guarantee the separation of church and state.

Watson is just a computer screen on stage. How do we know he's not the slumdog millionaire entering answers remotely? There's a reason that Alexander Graham Bell said, "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you."

Who is that dude in the video you mentioned? He's not a bad singer, but as a songwriter he, well, sucks. The best part is the weather forecast in the chorus:

Sarah Palin, she won't listen to their bunk.
Sarah Palin's comin' south to hunt some skunk.
Sarah Palin, she'll throw 'em all in jail.
And when she gets to Washington,
It'll be cold as hell.

Posted by: divtune | January 20, 2011 12:20 AM | Report abuse

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