An example of geeky-brainiac cross-promotion, "Smartest Machine on Earth" provides the background to next week's Jeopardy! showdown between Ken Jennings, whose face Alex Trebek got good and sick of in 2004; Brad Rutter, the winner of the most money in the show's history; and Watson, an IBM computer that is the end result of a four-year effort to build the ultimate testament to machine learning. The hour begins with a little slice of geek heaven, with a procession of wild-eyed fellows who've spent a lot of their lives indoors talking about how they got roped into the quest to build a machine smart enough to take our jobs, seduce our girlfriends, obtain our PIN numbers, and change the locks on the door. As you might guess, sci-fi had something to do with it. To establish just how long man has been dreaming of being displaced by his klankety brothers, there are clips of the heroine's mechanical doppelganger in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Forbidden Planet and Lost in Space co-star Robby the Robot, and something I couldn't place that looked as if Jeffrey Tambor had mated with a refrigerator, introducing itself with the sure-fire come-on line, "My brain is bigger than yours."
More than one intellectual wild man in the throes of nostalgia is seen here professing his deathless love for HAL 9000, from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yes, HAL turned out to be an unstable psychotic with blood on its gears, though nobody ever accused it of being harder to root for than Gary Lockwood. The important thing is, you could have an actual exchange with it. That's the dream, represented in duller but more benign form by the ship's computer on Star Trek, described by Watson project head David Farrucci as "an information-seeking tool that's capable of understanding your question and dialoguing with you to make sure that you get what you want." It's proved to be an elusive dream, because while computers are great at straightforward calculations both simple and complex, they're pretty hopeless when it comes to finessing the nuances of language and can't be programmed for things like empathy and human understanding. A '60s creation called Eliza, described as "one of the first programs that had anything resembling human conversation," was programmed to "respond like a psychiatrist, but it had no real insight. Instead, it followed certain rules and rearranged key phrases." Those of you who've been in therapy yourselves can make your own joke.
For years, the ultimate real-life nightmare scenario for people who like to imagine Terminator scenarios about the machines making us all obsolete has been for a computer to kick a chess master's ass, as Deep Blue did to Garry Kasparov in 1997. But chess is an ideal challenge for a computer because winning comes down to repeatedly selecting the best move from a vast but finite number of possibilities. A Q-&-A exhibition like Jeopardy! is trickier, and not just because it requires filling the computer with as large and varied a knowledge pool as possible. (Watson is basically a big search engine, but it isn't connected to the Internet when it enters the arena.) There's also the matter of understanding language well enough to successfully divine what piece of knowledge it's being asked to supply. As anyone who's worked the New York Times crossword puzzle on a Friday knows, this is more complicated than it sounds. Being asked what Thomas Edison got right in his workshop in 1877 is one thing, but when Trebek is shown telling his contestants, "You'll find this flower before 'pickle bottom' in a line of handbags and bedding," I think I blew a couple of my own circuits, and not just because of the added distraction of having to remember to phrase it as a question.
Because of the language barrier, it took Watson a few trips through the audition process before the Jeopardy producers agreed that he was ready to go on TV and be thrown to the super-wonks. At one point during the try-outs, he was asked to identify which 18th-century flag was flown by U.S. navy ships "as a symbol of the war on terrorism." Human ears would naturally zero in on the flag as the important part of that statement, but Watson got hung up on the reference to the war on terrorism, ran a search for the phrase most heavily associated with that term, and responded, "What is September 11, 2001 attacks?" Trebek understudy Todd Crain and the human responders reacted as if Watson had relieved itself in the punch bowl, but by then, Farrucci was sick and tired of all the good-natured ribbing that his baby had to endure every time it muffed a question. Speaking of Crain, he fumes, "He's making fun of and criticizing a defenseless computer that represents people with real feelings, real families. OK, maybe I don't have feelings, but my kids have feelings!"
In the end, the hard work put in by Farrucci and his team paid off, for Watson was declared ready for TV by the Jeopardy! producers, even as Todd Crain, based on all available evidence, failed to get any funnier. When the big battle is broadcast next week, who will be victorious, and if our side goes down in flames, will Ken Jennings prove to be a better sport and more genial representative of human obsolescence than Garry Kasparov? I, for one, welcome our droning-voiced, trivia-challenge overlords…