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Posted at 11:41 AM ET, 02/17/2011

Rise of the robots

By Ezra Klein

"Jeopardy!" master Ken Jennings got beat by IBM's trivia-playing computer Watson. Here's what he learned:

Playing against Watson turned out to be a lot like any other Jeopardy! game, though out of the corner of my eye I could see that the middle player had a plasma screen for a face. Watson has lots in common with a top-ranked human Jeopardy! player: It's very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman. But unlike us, Watson cannot be intimidated. It never gets cocky or discouraged. It plays its game coldly, implacably, always offering a perfectly timed buzz when it's confident about an answer. Jeopardy! devotees know that buzzer skill is crucial—games between humans are more often won by the fastest thumb than the fastest brain. This advantage is only magnified when one of the "thumbs" is an electromagnetic solenoid trigged by a microsecond-precise jolt of current....

IBM has bragged to the media that Watson's question-answering skills are good for more than annoying Alex Trebek. The company sees a future in which fields like medical diagnosis, business analytics, and tech support are automated by question-answering software like Watson. Just as factory jobs were eliminated in the 20th century by new assembly-line robots, Brad and I were the first knowledge-industry workers put out of work by the new generation of "thinking" machines. "Quiz show contestant" may be the first job made redundant by Watson, but I'm sure it won't be the last.

The sentient computers of the future are going to think it pretty hilarious that a knowledge-based showdown between one of their own and a creature with a liver was ever considered a fair fight.

By Ezra Klein  | February 17, 2011; 11:41 AM ET
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Gary Kasparov said much the same thing after being beaten in chess by the computer. It was unnerving to be up against a machine that did not experience anxiety and could not be intimidated.

Posted by: jeanlucj | February 17, 2011 12:35 PM | Report abuse

It was apparent from the first night that the key advantage Watson had was the solenoid buzzer. The computer consistently came in first and it appeared that on the second match both human contestants had figured out how to partially deal with this. In this respect, it was not a fair competition (Watson had a number of wrong answers as well even when not buzzing in first and it would be interesting to know the % wrong responses).

Posted by: agoldhammer | February 17, 2011 12:52 PM | Report abuse

We still hold the edge over the Terminators in creativity – we did design the machines (and SkyNet) after all – and that’s a good thing, usually. Self-awareness is still on our side too, though that’s NOT always a good thing. That aside, what happens when machines become self-aware and realize they ARE different from us? Hope that doesn’t lead to a Terminator scenario but I doubt Watson is a prototype SkyNet. We can’t process info. faster than a machine but can outthink it from a lateral, creative view. That’s not always going to lead to simplistic short-out-the-computer scenes common to “Star Trek” but we’ll hold our own, no doomsday scenario here.

Posted by: deconstructiva | February 17, 2011 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Stunts like this and the Deep Blue chess matches don't excite me much. Usually it seems like the developers get the machine out into a stunt as soon as possible. What's cool is that, in the same way that Deep Blue kept getting better and better, so too will Watson. The most impressive thing about Watson isn't it's buzzing ability or its vast stores of trivia, but it's understanding of language. There are some pretty obvious rough spots now, but in five years we're likely to be blown away by how chatty robots will be.

Posted by: MosBen | February 17, 2011 1:30 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of lost factory jobs in the 20th century, this device (or something similar) will likely destroy many of the remainder in the 21st:

Posted by: justin84 | February 17, 2011 2:14 PM | Report abuse

deconstructiva, really? How about this headline in 2050: "98% of people were put out of work in the last 25 years. The 2% of the wealthy control nearly 100% of the economy and have replace nearly all of the workforce with machines".

I don't know about you but that sounds like doomsday to me.

Posted by: elkiii_2008 | February 17, 2011 2:39 PM | Report abuse

When the answers were straightforward trivia, the machine's speed couldn't be beat. Take the Beatles songs category. I'm sure both contestants knew them all, but I think Watson swept the category. A line of lyrics and the answer (the title) is instant. Actually, Watson probably should have been denied for giving "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" when the correct answer was "Maxwell."

It was only when the answers were a bit more ambiguous that the humans had a chance.

Posted by: Virginia7 | February 17, 2011 3:16 PM | Report abuse

elkiii, don't exaggerate. If you take the growth in what the top 1% of Americans earn as a share of total national income from 1990-2003 and extrapolate it out to 2050, the top 1% will only be earning 88% of total national income. The rest of us will be just fine. Living in the Matrix. Eating virtual steak.

Posted by: aaronsama | February 17, 2011 5:45 PM | Report abuse

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