Machines first out-calculated us in simple math. Then they replaced us on the assembly lines, explored places we couldn't get to, even beat our champions at chess. Now a computer called Watson has bested our best at "Jeopardy!"
A gigantic computer created by IBM specifically to excel at answers-and-questions left two champs of the TV game show in its silicon dust after a three-day tournament, a feat that experts call a technological breakthrough.
Watson earned $77,147, versus $24,000 for Ken Jennings and $21,600 for Brad Rutter.
The next step for the IBM machine and its programmers: taking its mastery of the arcane and applying it to help doctors plow through blizzards of medical information. Watson could also help make Internet searches far more like a conversation than the hit-or-miss things they are now.
Watson's victory leads to the question: What can we measly humans do that amazing machines cannot do or will never do?
The answer, like all of "Jeopardy!," comes in the form of a question: Who — not what — dreamed up Watson? While computers can calculate and construct, they cannot decide to create. So far, only humans can.
"The way to think about this is: Can Watson decide to create Watson?" said Pradeep Khosla, dean of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "We are far from there. Our ability to create is what allows us to discover and create new knowledge and technology."
Experts in the field say it is more than the spark of creation that separates man from his mechanical spawn. It is the pride creators can take, the empathy we can all have with the winners and losers, and that magical mix of adrenaline, fear and ability that kicks in when our backs are against the wall and we are in survival mode.
What humans have that Watson, IBM's earlier chess champion Deep Blue, and all their electronic predecessors and software successors do not have and will not get is the sort of thing that makes song, romance, smiles, sadness and all that jazz. It's something the experts in computers, robotics and artificial intelligence know very well because they can't figure out how it works in people, much less duplicate it. It's that indescribable essence of humanity.
Nevertheless, Watson, which took 25 IBM scientists four years to create, is more than just a trivia whiz, some experts say.
Richard Doherty, a computer industry expert and research director at the Envisioneering Group in Seaford, N.Y., said he has been studying artificial intelligence for decades. He thinks IBM's advances with Watson are changing the way people think about artificial intelligence and how a computer can be programmed to give conversational answers — not merely lists of sometimes not-germane entries.
"This is the most significant breakthrough of this century," he said. "I know the phones are ringing off the hook with interest in Watson systems. The Internet may trump Watson, but for this century, it's the most significant advance in computing."
And yet Watson's creators say this breakthrough gives them an extra appreciation for the magnificent machines we call people.
"I see human intelligence consuming machine intelligence, not the other way around," David Ferrucci, IBM's lead researcher on Watson, said in an interview Wednesday. "Humans are a different sort of intelligence. Our intelligence is so interconnected. The brain is so incredibly interconnected with itself, so interconnected with all the cells in our body, and has co-evolved with language and society and everything around it."
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