Watson, the kind-hearted (we hope) IBM supercomputer, beat humans handily at our own favorite game, “Jeopardy!,” a few weeks back, seamlessly deploying the kind of contextual reasoning once thought impossible for computers. Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, two of the most successful “Jeopardy!” geeks in history, could not turn back the silicon onslaught. Watson had earned $77,147 at the end of two days; Jennings had $24,000; Rutter, a near carbon copy with $21,600. The rest of humanity? Zero, I’m guessing. Now that we can see what Watson can do—presuming it is more than humiliate homo sapiens on game shows—are we carbon-based life forms the ones in jeopardy?
From HAL, the red-eyed menace of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and Colossus, right through to the evil, earth-stomping Skynet of the “Terminator” series, pop culture has taught us mere humans to fear the dawn of the age of artificial intelligence. (And I will make no references to the movie which dare not speak its name, but you know what I’m talking about, Jude Law). It seems that whenever silicon-based “life” comes online, its first binary thought-ish impulse is the immediate decimation of all things human—though the silicon-based forms on “Battlestar Galactica” had to acquire a theology of their own and super-hotness first. As the stylishly evil Agent Smith points out in “The Matrix” series, to machines, humans appear most like a virus: something to stamp out as quickly as possible, not superior beings to humbly—and permanently—serve.
Why all the cyber-hating? In sci-fi movies the supercomputers and robots we build are mere reflections of their creators’ horror-show image and our tendency to resolve things at the end of a barrel—or metallic fist—instead of a bargaining table. Our violence is their violence. The Wizard of Oz green-smoked simulacrum is no more harmful ultimately than the ineffectual man himself, but Colossus and Guardian can’t keep their e-hands off their creators’ nuclear missile stockpiles.
In “Blade Runner” we discover that the replicants being chased down by Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard are perhaps more human than their life-numbed creators, capable of great reverence and love, also of great brutality (poor Joe Turkel gets the world’s worst eye exam as replicant-god Dr. Eldon Tyrell). Yes, it sounds familiar. It sounds like us.
Can the days of killer computers that crowd sci-fi movies be far off? If you visit iRobot.com you won’t find a trailer for the Will Smith film or a fansite for the Isacc Asimov novel the film is based on. You will find the home of the Roomba robot vacuum and its family of robotic relatives. Some of their skills seem frivolous, some vaguely militaristic and threatening. We already inhabit a world where robot drones do our dirty work for us in the “Overseas Contingency Operation” (there, I didn’t say, “war on terror”). These technical, merciless killing marvels look pretty much like prototypes for the hunter-killer drones Skynet will eventually deploy to run down the vestiges of humanity after Judgment Day. (Does anyone at the Pentagon or State departments ever watch science fiction? That could save us from a lot of heartache down the road. For instance, please review the “prime directive,” then treat it with greater reverence than Captain James T. Kirk. Repeat.)
Does Watson represent the postulated—and perhaps longed for in some quarters—“technological singularity,” the dislocating event that will trigger an era of such rapid technological progress that all the future after it becomes impossible for lowly humanity to predict? I hope not. My VHS is still flashing “12:00.”
Besides I have a suspicion that such techie advances—your status-quo demolishing leaps in nanotechnology or robotics, your cyber-enhanced chassis production (GM or Ford?)—are going to leave us an ocean of suffering, seething drones overlorded by a creepy oligarchy of tentacled Mr. Burns cyberheads. Already blue-toothed-enabled mobile users prowling the streets of midtown look most like Borg-wannabes to me. Resistance may be futile, but you can keep your blue-light specials. I’ll wait for my temporal lobe implant.
The slick graphics and smooth, if monotonal, talking Watson, and its 3,000 processor “brain,” is a far cry from the clicking and clacking card-spitting of the UNIVAC, which now appears benevolently incompetent in comparison. Watson will no doubt proceed to greater glory as the human-trouncing supercomputer. Won’t that only whet his appetite for the real thing? (What are those guys at I.B.M. thinking? Do they not have Netflix?)
Thankfully, all is not lost. Watson is not infallible. In final Jeopardy, asked which American city has one airport named after a WWII hero and a second named after a WWII battle, poor Watson could only manage "What is Toronto?"
That’s not even in America.