‘It’s elementary, Watson. You’re not that smart’

“I never get your limits, Watson. There are unexplored possibilities about you.”

– Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes, I suspect, would have despised the computerized Watson on display this week on “Jeopardy.” The machine proved to be everything that the fictional Holmes prided himself on being — coldly calculating, decisive and unemotional — 0nly much more so.

columnAs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the two most decorated human champions in “Jeopardy” history, looked on in frustration,  the IBM computer buzzed in first on question after question, answering most of them correctly and leaving millions in the television audience aghast that their fellow carbon-based life forms had been bested so easily.

It’s a funny thing: We don’t feel challenged by machines that are stronger than we are, or faster than we are. But we can get a little nervous about machines that we suspect might outsmart us.  Intelligence is supposed to define us as a species — that’s why we’ve branded ourselves “Homo sapiens,” the knowing man — so machines that call our intellectual dominance into question can be a bit unsettling.

Or, as the defeated Jennings playfully scrawled on his Final Jeopardy answer: “I for one welcome our new computer overlords.”

Scientists, of course, tell us that it’s irrational to feel threatened by our own machines. They’re no doubt right — we’re just being silly. Silly and foolish. Silly little irrational foolish people, that’s us. If only we had a purely logical computer to do our thinking for us, right?

This has been a long time coming. Fifteen years ago, I had the chance to cover the historic six-game chess match between Garry Kasparov, the best chess player in history, against an IBM computer called Deep Blue. The machine was capable of analyzing 100 million chess positions a second, while Kasparov at his peak could analyze just three. Yet Kasparov somehow won that particular challenge, and at a press conference afterward he boasted about being the defender of mankind, beating back the onslaught of the machine.

A year later, he lost pretty badly in a rematch. The onslaught of the machine resumed.

In reality, there’s no danger of our machines outsmarting us, however entertaining we might find the idea. (As irrational beings, we do like to scare ourselves a bit). Think of it this way: According to IBM, Watson runs on 90 of the company’s Power 750 servers, and draws on a database roughly equivalent to a million books. In other words, it takes more than five tons of raw computing power to compete against a human brain of roughly three pounds. And while Watson is a single-purpose tool much like a potato peeler — its sole function is playing Jeopardy — the human brain is capable of doing so much more.

For example, building a machine capable of playing Jeopardy.

Bill Murdock, a 2001 Georgia Tech grad and an IBM researcher on the Watson project, concedes that it’s really no contest. “Absolutely,” he says, “human beings are really, really impressive.” In fact, he says, a different set of questions or categories in this week’s contest might have produced a human winner. In pre-match sparring against lesser Jeopardy champions, he says, Watson won just 71 percent of the time.

And as viewers saw this week, it doesn’t always produce the right answer. In a Final Jeopardy question about U.S. cities, Watson for some reason answered “Toronto.” Nobody is sure why, but using the deductive power available only to we humans, Murdock surmises that somewhere deep in its database, Watson has a list titled “American and Canadian cities,” in which Toronto is included. If the list had been properly titled “American OR Canadian cities,” Watson might not have made that mistake.

In other words, human error.

In our awe of our own technology, we sometimes forget that weakness. Watson and its offspring are not decision-makers; they are tools to assist us in decision-making. Like the Watson who assisted Sherlock Holmes, and the Watson who lent a hand to Alexander Graham Bell, computerized Watsons will always play second banana.

We hope.

227 comments Add your comment

Dudley (proud Union member)

February 18th, 2011
7:00 am

Dudley (proud Union member)

February 18th, 2011
7:03 am

Personally I think man vs machine contests are pretty cool.

Dudley (proud Union member)

February 18th, 2011
7:06 am

You know John Henry vs the steam engine, kasparov vs deep blue, just too cool

TaxPayer

February 18th, 2011
7:06 am

Na! Nu! Na! Nu!

Road Scholar

February 18th, 2011
7:07 am

How many times during the taping of the show did the computer go down?

Dudley (proud Union member)

February 18th, 2011
7:07 am

Neo vs smith, Sara conner vs t-1000

Dudley (can the people on tv see me?)

February 18th, 2011
7:09 am

They said it crashed repeatedly. Took over 4 hours to tape the show.

Jimmy62

February 18th, 2011
7:11 am

If they hadn’t stopped the game whenever Watson broke down, the humans would have crushed the computer.

Dudley (can the people on tv see me?)

February 18th, 2011
7:15 am

Jimmy

That is true, but it would have violated the spirit of the game.

TaxPayer

February 18th, 2011
7:23 am

Today, I will be running very powerful and complex software on my micro super mini PC — TurboTax™. I’m expecting big things from it and it better not crash.

Normal

February 18th, 2011
7:28 am

NEWS FLASH, LOS ANGELES!!!

KEN JENNINGS FOUND WATSON’S LABORATORY IN CERAMIC POD, NUDE, HOOKED INTO THE NET.

WATSON DENYS ANY KNOWLEDGE OF ALLEGED CRIME. WATSON INSISTES, “I HAD JUST CRASHED”.

Dudley (can the people on tv see me?)

February 18th, 2011
7:30 am

Taxpayer

Good luck

Granny Godzilla

February 18th, 2011
7:34 am

“f they hadn’t stopped the game whenever Watson broke down, the humans would have crushed the computer”

“That is true, but it would have violated the spirit of the game.”

If Jennings or Rutter had crashed the game would have been over.

When Watson becomes reliable, I’ll shake his circuits in congratulations.

TaxPayer

February 18th, 2011
7:41 am

Solving systems of non-linear partial differential equations is so much easier than doing taxes. Can I borrow Watson for a while.

Southern Comfort (E.O.I.)

February 18th, 2011
7:47 am

LOL @ Normal!!!!!!!

Seems like I touched a few nerves last night with a comparison I made. I guess I’ll have to add a disclaimer when making a simple comparison in the future to keep from ruffling too many feathers.

Dudley (can the people on tv see me?)

February 18th, 2011
7:48 am

Taxpayer

WTF are you talking about??? Some kind of math I hope

TaxPayer

February 18th, 2011
7:51 am

Back when I was still gainfully employed, the most powerful compooper we had access to was called a CRAY. Do they still make those things. I wonder if Watson knows.

Normal

February 18th, 2011
7:52 am

SoCo, Thank yew, thank yew ver’ much…pain meds seem to bring out the “weird funny” in me…

Peadawg

February 18th, 2011
7:53 am

I think it’s amazing what computers can do these days…process that much information in such a short amount of time.

Normal

February 18th, 2011
7:54 am

Taxie,
Computers are Biblical. Eve had her Apple in one hand and Adam’s Wang in the other…how old is Watson, anyway?

TaxPayer

February 18th, 2011
7:55 am

NORMAL!

What are you taking anyway.

Southern Comfort (E.O.I.)

February 18th, 2011
7:58 am

Normal

YOU are weird funny to begin with. The pain meds are making you more Normal, that’s all. ;)

Bud Wiser

February 18th, 2011
7:59 am

I don’t know, I think Robert Downey Jr’s title character in “Sherlock Holmes” would have handled this ‘Watson’ with his usual aplomb.

Hell, may as well get in on this absolutely foaming blather that deals with less than nothing anyway…

AmVet

February 18th, 2011
8:02 am

Forget hyper-threading.

Post a topic about labor unions and watch the hyper-hating begin!

Wowzers. That sets the faithful off even more than anthropogenic climate change!

Heard this one yesterday evening at Kroger and thought I’d get a head start on tonight…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVVpDfxhcOo

USinUK

February 18th, 2011
8:02 am

hey, all it would have taken was one well-spilled Coke and Watson would have been toast.

USinUK

February 18th, 2011
8:03 am

Bud – I prefer Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock -

Southern Comfort (E.O.I.)

February 18th, 2011
8:09 am

Like Ken Jennings, I also welcome our new computer overlords… :)

TaxPayer

February 18th, 2011
8:10 am

hey, all it would have taken was one well-spilled Coke and Watson would have been toast.

At least it is over quick for the computer. Humans suffer a slower and more agonizing life due to their intake of such things.

Dudley (can the people on tv see me?)

February 18th, 2011
8:11 am

Amvet

I like listing to people who hate unions. Shows how little they know,and how deep the right wing indoctrination is.

Dudley (can the people on tv see me?)

February 18th, 2011
8:12 am

Oops listening

tom turner

February 18th, 2011
8:12 am

Can a computer rationalize? If so, Mr. Bookman, why not invite Watson to do an op-ed?

USinUK

February 18th, 2011
8:13 am

tom – forget rationalization … I’m just happy that they vacuum.

Southern Comfort (E.O.I.)

February 18th, 2011
8:16 am

I don’t know if you could call it rationalizing, but the autopilot for a Boeing 747-400 can actually land the plane itself, without assistance from the pilot or co-pilot.

Moderate Line

February 18th, 2011
8:16 am

And while Watson is a single-purpose tool much like a potato peeler — its sole function is playing Jeopardy — the human brain is capable of doing so much more.

For example, building a machine capable of playing Jeopardy.
++++
How many humans can actually build a computer which can play Jeopardy? Your comparing what a single computer can do to what ALL of humanity can accomplish.

USinUK

February 18th, 2011
8:20 am

moderate – and how long has it taken humans to build a machine capable of playing jeopardy?

the thing that always blows me away is the hockey-stick trajectory we’re on with technology – how far we’ve come from the slide-ruler scene in Apollo 13 to, as SoCo just mentioned, a plan that can land itself

TaxPayer

February 18th, 2011
8:21 am

Watson could be just the tip of the iceberg. Just imagine. We could accomplish so much more with a little faith. Too bad the world is ending in 2012.

USinUK

February 18th, 2011
8:22 am

not to be confused with a planE that can land itself

that’ll never happen

USinUK

February 18th, 2011
8:23 am

no, no, no, Tax … jeebus is coming back in just a few weeks (on my birfday, actually) …didn’t you hear?

Southern Comfort (E.O.I.)

February 18th, 2011
8:26 am

USinner

That’s gonna be some kind of suprise birthday party. :)

I agree with you on the technology thing. If I remember correctly, even with the Space Shuttle, the computers we have now would take up a quarter of the space that is currently occupied by computers on the shuttle to do the same functions.

AmVet

February 18th, 2011
8:26 am

Dudley, rather predictable wasn’t it?

But yes, it was all very illuminating.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGXeBpvCxro&feature=related

Doggone/GA

February 18th, 2011
8:26 am

“I don’t know if you could call it rationalizing”

No, that’s not rationalizing. It’s straightforward linear instruction following.

Only human beings can rationalize. The only example of rationalizing I can think of this early in the morning is embodied in “the end justifies the means”

Class of '98

February 18th, 2011
8:27 am

We can stuff all the facts and figues into a machine that we want. Until they become aware of their own existence, they pose no threat. And we are no closer to giving machines that power than the ancients were.

Dudley (can the people on tv see me?)

February 18th, 2011
8:28 am

Enter your comments here

TaxPayer

February 18th, 2011
8:30 am

The machine proved to be everything that the fictional Holmes prided himself on being — coldly calculating, decisive and unemotional — 0nly much more so.

When I first read that, Jay, I thought you were commenting on the computer but you were actually referring to the Republican machine, weren’t you.

Dudley (can the people on tv see me?)

February 18th, 2011
8:30 am

Hit then wrong part of the iPad.

USinUK

February 18th, 2011
8:31 am

SoCo – depends on what he brings me … if he regifts the myrrh, I’m going to be peeved.

Southern Comfort (E.O.I.)

February 18th, 2011
8:33 am

LOL!!!!! What if he just offers to provide catering?

USinUK

February 18th, 2011
8:36 am

SoCo – meh … there’s only so much fish and bread you can get excited about … but. at least the bar won’t go dry …

Normal

February 18th, 2011
8:37 am

How do those Amish ever get along without Ipads?

USinUK

February 18th, 2011
8:38 am

aw, man … Uncle Leo died

http://tv.uk.msn.com/news/articles.aspx?cp-documentid=156148279

(but, at 88, he had good innings)

Dudley (can the people on tv see me?)

February 18th, 2011
8:39 am

Normal

Lol, love my iPad, but sometimes it is so slow, especially typing

Southern Comfort (E.O.I.)

February 18th, 2011
8:39 am

but. at least the bar won’t go dry

That’s what I was talking about!!!!!

Keep up the good fight!

February 18th, 2011
8:39 am

Didn’t we already elect a computer governor of California?

Jeopardy? Let’s see how Watson does on Are you smarter than a 5th grader? or Family Feud.

poke 'em with a stick

February 18th, 2011
8:40 am

It took Humans hundreds of thousands of years to attain the knowledge they now have. Computers in the 70’s could only process one instruction at a time.

Normal

February 18th, 2011
8:41 am

BTW, I’m quite the 21st century dude now. For our birthdays, our kids
got my wife and me a Wii for the 42 incher tv they bought for us over Xmas…I’m too cool now!

I asked them why such a gift and they said we are the only ones who will play with the grand kids…but we need to practise. I also suspect it has something to do with baby sitting too…P-A-R-T-Y!!!

Lil' Barry Bailout

February 18th, 2011
8:42 am

The “Watson” moniker comes not from the Sherlock Holmes character, but from the founder of IBM, Thomas Watson.

Southern Comfort (E.O.I.)

February 18th, 2011
8:43 am

How do those Amish ever get along without Ipads?

I guess they’re old school and stick with the eye patch. :)

barking frog

February 18th, 2011
8:44 am

The danger of computers lies in their efficiency at
replacing people in the workplace. Accountants are
basically being replaced, tax workers, even bond
analysts and attorneys are at risk, many low level
jobs have disappeared in banks, phone companies,
and corporations. No one answers the phone at ATT,
only automated menus on computers.
How will we handle the unemployment when the
jobs will not come back?

poke 'em with a stick

February 18th, 2011
8:45 am

“How will we handle the unemployment when the
jobs will not come back?”

Soilent Green

Paul

February 18th, 2011
8:46 am

Computers aren’t self-aware. People are.

In fact, some people are so self-aware they’re aware only of themselves. They are the center of, and sum total of, the Universe.

Computers have a long way to go to top that.

___________________________________________________________________

Normal – good one! I don’t think I’ll use that explanation in Sunday School class, though -

Southern Comfort (E.O.I.)

February 18th, 2011
8:46 am

Normal

I got the wife a Wii for Christmas too. It’s on the 42″ as well. Depending on what games you play, you’ll end up sore as hell if you’re not careful. I’ve been doing a bit of bass fishing lately, especially since it’s hard for me to get to the lake on the regular.

poke 'em with a stick

February 18th, 2011
8:46 am

Or is that Soylent Green…I don’t remember.

Mary Elizabeth

February 18th, 2011
8:48 am

Class of ‘98 @ 8:27 a.m.

“Until they become aware of their own existence, they pose no threat”.

___________________________________________________________

In other words, until computers have “consciousness,” they pose no threat.

And, I doubt computers will ever be able to reflect, with consciousness, because they will always lack that most vital part of human beings – a soul or spirit – which can give rise to creativity, as demonstrated in the arts – music, literature, visual arts – or that part of human nature which is that profound and humane, and which lasts.

I liked the opening quote by Sherlock Holmes – “unexplored possibilities” – which touches upon the existence of human creativity – a touch of the Divine in each soul.

USinUK

February 18th, 2011
8:48 am

Soylent Green …

well played, poke’ em! (chuckling)

Southern Comfort (E.O.I.)

February 18th, 2011
8:50 am

How about a thread on the new pick for the tv version of Wonder Woman. Checking out google images, and she’s not a bad pick at all……

http://tinyurl.com/6jxmmxj

Dudley (can the people on tv see me?)

February 18th, 2011
8:51 am

I’d like to see the computer do my job

barking frog

February 18th, 2011
8:51 am

poke ‘em with a stick

February 18th, 2011
8:45 am

Soilent Green
—————————————–
Sounds like a Depends problem…

Paul

February 18th, 2011
8:53 am

SoCom

As long as they’re not thinking of casting one of these as the new Wonder Woman, we’re okay.

http://tinyurl.com/46tdqbv

poke 'em with a stick

February 18th, 2011
8:54 am

barking frog – Sounds like a Depends problem…
=============================================
Don’t make fun of the “Hes”

USinUK

February 18th, 2011
8:54 am

Normal – we’re an XBox fam – the mister went out and bought Kinect for us a couple of weeks ago – no controllers – it monitors your movements –

but, yes, SoCo’s absolutely right – we boxed 3 matches – my shoulders were killing me the next day! (and I cleaned his clock at bowling – too bad I can’t get those kind of scores in real life)

barking frog

February 18th, 2011
8:57 am

poke’em, the “Hes” is immune to derision and the Depends have
been torn from his cold dead hands

Southern Comfort (E.O.I.)

February 18th, 2011
8:59 am

Paul

Agreed!!!

barking frog

February 18th, 2011
9:00 am

poke’em with a stick has been replaced by
poke’em with a click….

barking frog

February 18th, 2011
9:01 am

dudley is an iphone…

jconservative

February 18th, 2011
9:02 am

“Scientists, of course, tell us that it’s irrational to feel threatened by our own machines.”

Yeah? Go tell that to Dave Bowman.

Dudley (can the people on tv see me?)

February 18th, 2011
9:02 am

Sammy

February 18th, 2011
9:06 am

I am not worried about being bested by a machine– so long as i have a sledge hammer.

USinUK

February 18th, 2011
9:06 am

jcons … what are you doing, Dave?

Doggone/GA

February 18th, 2011
9:07 am

“I am not worried about being bested by a machine– so long as i have a sledge hammer.”

Heck, there’s no need for violence…all you have to do is unplug it!

USinUK

February 18th, 2011
9:07 am

doggone – like I said earlier, one strategically spilled coke

poke 'em with a stick

February 18th, 2011
9:08 am

“Yeah? Go tell that to Dave Bowman”

I’m afraid I can’t do that Dave.

Azazel

February 18th, 2011
9:10 am

If you do what droids do, then droids will be doing it —– real soon.

moonbat betty

February 18th, 2011
9:10 am

the problem is not when the computers take over, but when they shut down…

Doggone/GA

February 18th, 2011
9:11 am

“like I said earlier, one strategically spilled coke”

Years ago I used to work in a data center, and we had…can you believe it…WATER cooled computers!

USinUK

February 18th, 2011
9:12 am

doggone – I just wish air-cooled computers made the same sound as the old air-cooled VW bugs! ;-)

poke 'em with a stick

February 18th, 2011
9:14 am

Doggone – I still work in a data center and one of those old 3083’s fit in your pocket now.

barking frog

February 18th, 2011
9:15 am

the AJC staff will soon be replaced by a computer that
can cut and paste….

Doggone/GA

February 18th, 2011
9:15 am

“I just wish air-cooled computers made the same sound as the old air-cooled VW bugs”

Yeah, no kidding. I never owned a bug, but I have owned two VW vans – couldn’t kill the darn things with a stick! One lasted 15 years and the other 17

Doggone/GA

February 18th, 2011
9:16 am

“I still work in a data center and one of those old 3083’s fit in your pocket now.”

Yep! And that’s one reason I virtually NEVER buy brand new electronics – meaning new generation. Just like the iPhone – cost, what was it, $1000 or something…now you can get one for $50

barking frog

February 18th, 2011
9:17 am

dudley, an iphone will not be replaced by a computer…it’s
doing the replacing.

Dudley (can the people on tv see me?)

February 18th, 2011
9:20 am

Frog

Ok cool. Thhanks

Normal

February 18th, 2011
9:21 am

SoCo, USinUK,
I played the golf game and got to thinking ( :shock: ). I figured, calculating a 30 inch step times the yards of the hole played, you could “march in place” the required number to your ball, etc. and play a “real game”.

As a short aside from a Sailor about Marines…I was playing golf at the course at Little Creek Va., and a Gunny Sgt. and four Marines asked to play through. The four Grunts were the players and they were jogging in place, carrying their bags like a strapped rifle. The Gunny
shouted out a name and a Grunt jogged to the tee and with precise military movements, placed the ball on the tee, and hit it. He returned to the line, did 12 push-ups (we were on the twelfth tee) and the other three repeated the scene. They then proceeded to jog off down the path to their balls where the scene was repeated until they were out of sight. My group, all Sailors, just shook our heads and popped a beer. There was just nothing we could say…

George W

February 18th, 2011
9:21 am

Jay….who wants to talk about a computer when we can talk politics?

barking frog

February 18th, 2011
9:24 am

Normal, BOORAH, Sempel Fi…might have worked.

Southern Comfort (E.O.I.)

February 18th, 2011
9:24 am

Normal

You were thinking….. :shock:

j/k

Dudley (can the people on tv see me?)

February 18th, 2011
9:25 am

Only a marine would screw up a good game of golf

Doggone/GA

February 18th, 2011
9:25 am

“who wants to talk about a computer when we can talk politics?”

And when do we EVER stick solely to the subject?

USinUK

February 18th, 2011
9:27 am

and who wants to talk computers or politics when we can talk food …

Southern Comfort (E.O.I.)

February 18th, 2011
9:28 am

Obviously George W is not very knowledgable on thread drift….

USinUK

February 18th, 2011
9:28 am

soco – sorta like continental drift … but different