What supercomputer "Jeopardy!" win means
Watson in the lead.
Competing against two occasionally frustrated humans, Watson made winning “Jeopardy!” look elementary.
The final tally for the IBM supercomputer was $77,147, compared to $24,000 for Ken Jennings and $21,600 for Brad Rutter.
Ace human player Jennings, famed for winning 74 games in a row on the TV quiz show, perhaps summed up the situation best.
“I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords,” he wrote on his Final Jeopardy answer, riffing off a line from a “Simpsons” episode.
So does that mean humanity as we know it is destined to become as obsolete as last year’s iPhone?
Philip Clayton, a theology professor and administrator at United Methodist-affiliated Claremont School of Theology, is not too worried.
“The day a computer can write a sermon better than I and my pastoral colleagues can write, then I start getting anxious,” he joked.
Still, Clayton and other Christian thinkers acknowledge that the recent rapid advances of technology can present both great opportunities to make the world better and great temptations to abuse God’s gifts.
Watson’s triumph, a step forward for artificial intelligence, is in some ways emblematic of that challenge. With the three-day showdown, the IBM researchers proved a computer can combine great speed, encyclopedic knowledge, analytical power and an understanding of wordplay and the nuances of human language.
In short, the supercomputer named for IBM founder Thomas J. Watson Sr. is a reminder that human-devised machines can sometimes beat us at our game.
About a century ago, the term “computer” did not refer to a machine but to a person. Back then, computers — many of them women — provided calculations and numerical analysis for engineering firms, universities and other businesses.
Where companies once had human computers, they now have information technology departments.
But as Watson’s win demonstrates, computers are becoming increasingly human-like.
Some thinkers envision a time when humans and computers will once again be one and the same.
The futurist Raymond Kurzweil predicts that by 2045, technology will have advanced enough to achieve what he calls “the singularity,” in which machines smarter than humans can build machines smarter than themselves. Fellow futurists speculate that humans will one day be able to merge with robots or upload their consciousnesses onto computers, becoming virtually immortal.
Clayton, who specializes in science and ethics, dismisses that idea, saying singularity believers have not done much to prove their case.
Jaydee Hanson, a United Methodist ethicist and policy director for the International Center for Technological Assessment in Washington, agrees such “transhumanism” is unlikely to happen.
For the foreseeable future, he said the most likely human-machine interface will take the form of medical aids, such as the neural implants that soothe Parkinson’s patients.
But that does not mean computers won’t continue to encroach onto domains once thought to belong solely to humans.
“The question we need to be asking the computers of the future is: How do they help us have more empathy, how do they help us better care for our neighbor?” he said. “Some of the applications certainly will do that.”
He pointed to the example of his son, who programs computer models that predict how much runoff a community will experience in storms. Such models help villages in Rwanda determine how big a cistern they will build.
As computers grow more sophisticated, the challenge Christians will face is to continue listening to what their faith tells them to do and never forget the sovereignty of God, Hanson said.
“Jesus had three temptations. One was to use political power improperly, one was to use spiritual power improperly and the third was to use technical power improperly,” he said. “To change a stone into bread is the same temptation that some of these technologies bring to us.”
Jesus responded to his temptation by quoting Deuteronomy, pointing out that humankind does not live by bread alone, but by God’s word.
“That’s a reminder: You live because of God’s provision, not because of your own creativity,” Hanson said.
The Rev. K Karpen, senior pastor of Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist, is not much of a “Jeopardy!” fan, but like so many, he was eager to tune in each night to see how Watson fared against human champions.
The competition got him thinking about the differences between human and computer.
He thinks there is a part of God that would be delighted by the IBM researchers’ accomplishments the same way he is delighted when his 9-year-old son does something inventive.
Still, he pointed out, even Watson made mistakes many people would not. On the second night of the competition, the computer botched the Final Jeopardy question. The category was U.S. cities and the clue: “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest for a World War II battle.”
The correct answer is, “What is Chicago?” Watson had guessed Toronto, seemingly oblivious that it is not a U.S. city.
“I think either we’re designing machines that can help us do our jobs better or we’re designing machines to take over and do all jobs for us,” Karpen said. “I don’t think we’re necessarily going in the second direction.”
There will always be a fundamental essence that separates computers from humans, argues Paul Griffiths, a theology professor at United Methodist-affiliated Duke Divinity School.
Included in that essence are virtues such as generosity. The humans behind IBM plan to demonstrate that generosity with Watson’s win. IBM will split its $1 million prize between two charities.
One recipient is a group that enables individuals to donate unused computer time to medical research. The second is an international Christian humanitarian group. – By Heather Hahn
Pictured: IBM’s Watson competes and wins against “Jeopardy!’s” two celebrated contestants — Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Photo courtesy of IBM/Jeff Gluck.Originally Posted: Apr 27, 2011