We’ve created a monster

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Thus ended the reign of man on this earth, enslaved forever to the computing monster, which he had created.

OK, I’ll admit that was incredibly melodramatic. But it was the first thing that came to my mind while watching the Jeopardy IBM Challenge, which started on Feb. 14 and ran for three days. The IBM Challenge pitted two of the most successful Jeopardy contestants ever, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, against a supercomputer developed by IBM, with the purpose of showcasing how far computing has come in recent years.

The supercomputer, lovingly dubbed “Watson” after IBM founder Thomas J Watson, is a huge leap forward in computing technology. Watson can analyze the complexity of human language and answer questions rapidly and accurately. And by “rapidly and accurately,” I mean “terrifyingly.”

Words cannot describe how much Watson speaks to my inner hysterical madman. His voice is bone-chillingly calm and digital. The round, spinning picture on his “face” looks like an eye that is constantly watching me through the camera, and the way Alex Trebek always treats him with slight deference makes me wonder if he hasn’t already threatened the lives of Trebek’s family to get total compliance from him.

Further, every single science fiction movie and book ever written has taught me to fear intelligent computing systems, be they in the form of VIKI from I, Robot or the computer in charge of killing everyone over the age of 21 in Logan’s Run. Worst of all, Watson’s avatar looks disturbingly like HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s hardly comforting that IBM created a supercomputer that looks like the American Film Institute’s 13th greatest movie villain of all time.

The only comfort I can find is that Watson is not connected to the Internet – yet. But when IBM, in their infinite intelligence, decides to connect Watson to the World Wide Web, we are heading for a world of trouble. Planes will be commandeered by Watson to serve the greater good of computer-kind, the Pentagon’s nuclear launch codes will be changed so that Watson controls a nuclear arsenal with which to threaten humanity, and all of our computerized gadgets will turn into the eyes and ears of one all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful entity reminiscent of Skynet in Terminator or God from the Bible. It’s just around the corner, and Jeopardy is the first step.

Why is IBM ignoring all the warnings our best Hollywood writers can come up with? I would bet that Watson, using his algorithm, could find that the only logical conclusion to his existence would be to enslave humanity. Yet I would wager that not a single person at IBM has questioned Watson’s motives. They strike me as a group of mad scientists bent on creating a world in which only computer technicians can survive.

As it stands, I hope that people will watch Jeopardy and become as fearful as I am of a world run by Watson, perhaps fearful enough to attack IBM headquarters and kill Watson. Watching Jennings and Rutter struggle to keep up with Watson, I found myself hoping that Jennings might throw down his buzzer and attack Watson with an axe or that Rutter would lose it and run next door to pull the plug on the giant refrigeration units that keep Watson cold enough to function. In any case, I was hoping that if human intellect failed to help them beat Watson, they would turn to the other thing humans are really good at to help them win: violence.

Because I don’t care how humans beat computers. All I care about is freedom from the cold, calculating menace that is Watson.

Edward Dodd
Contributor

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