Even If IBM’s Watson Wins ‘Jeopardy,’ Humanity Benefits

‘Jeopardy!’ tonight kicks off a three-day trivia championship that pits man against machine. No matter who scores highest this week, we win. For now.

Even If IBM's Watson Wins 'Jeopardy,' Humanity Benefits

This evening’s episode of ‘Jeopardy!’ features winners Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, who won $2.5 and $3.3 million, respectively, on the show, facing off against Watson, an IBM supercomputer pumped full of about 1 million books worth of knowledge and the ability to answer verbal questions.

Most people predict Watson’s massive amounts of data and rapid reflexes — it can scan 2 million pages in 3 seconds — give it the advantage, and the machine won a test round, although not by a lot: the computer won $4,400, Jennings was only $1000 behind that, and Rutter won $1,200.

Built for Jeopardy, Watson, with its tremendous knowledge and ability to recognize and process human language provokes worries of super smart machines one day destroying us all, as they have in so many science-fiction romps, like ‘Terminator’ and ‘Battlestar Galactica.’

As Rutter joked, “[I’m] not nervous, but I will be when Watson’s progeny comes back from the future to kill me.”

While I’m not discounting such a future — in fact, I fear it too — it’s probably a long way off, so let’s focus on the here and now: regardless of whether Watson, fitted with IBM’s Power7 system, trounces Jennings and Rutter, we win.

The implications of Watson’s evolution are infinite: if ever accessible for personal use, as IBM hopes, Watson will be able to scan millions of medical records for doctors around the world, read through intelligence documents for the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and streamline internet searches, which would be done verbally, rather than typing in questions.

There are, of course, downsides: as John Markoff writes in the ‘New York Times,’ “Virtually any job that now involves answering questions and conducting commercial transactions by telephone will soon be at risk.” Except for psychics, of course, who will make a bundle predicting when Hal, Skynet and the Cylons are going to launch their first attack.