Jeopardy’s Watson: John Henry vs. Skynet

This week, Jeopardy took a break from its standard format of three humans playing against each other and did something different. The venerable quiz show brought back two of its most noteworthy contestants and pit them against a machine to see which would emerge victorious. The returning contestants were Ken Jennings, best known for his 74-game winning streak on Jeopardy; and Brad Rutter, the game show’s highest earner with his combined value of Jeopardy cash and prizes totaling into multi-million dollar territory. These two men were certainly worthy adversaries. However, Jennings and Rutter faced off against and lost (by a mile) to a machine known as Watson.

Watson was created by the IBM corporation with the specific purpose of playing as a contestant on Jeopardy. (Interestingly enough, this piece of artificial intelligence software was named for IBM’s founder, Thomas J. Watson, and not for Sherlock Holmes’ partner in deductive reasoning.) The supercomputer was comprised of over 90 servers equipped with IBM’s DeepQA technology designed to process natural language, retrieve information, and execute reasoning, learning and fact-finding functions, as well as answer questions. Pretty impressive.

While a machine this fast and powerful calls to mind Terminator‘s Skynet, this timeless tale of “man vs. machine” also echoes that of the Steel-Driving Man, John Henry.

A statue of John Henry, that steel-drivin’ man, in Talcott, West Virginia

Oddly enough, whenever I had said, “Dude, Jeopardy is totally like John Henry right now,” to a few people, I had to explain my reference. Not a lot of people knew who John Henry was. If you find yourself among that group, John Henry was a working class folk hero of the 1800s in the early days of steam-powered technology. A giant of a man, Henry wielded a massive hammer, working all the live-long day to aid railroad company boss men in the westward expansion of building railroads across the United States. His size, speed and strength were marveled at… Until the railroad owners intended to replace Henry and his crew with a steam-powered hammer. Henry issued a challenge that he alone could drive more spikes than the machine in a given time.

Ultimately, as the fable goes, John Henry beat the machine but died in the process, still clutching his hammer Chuck Heston-style until the bitter end. It’s a shame more people haven’t heard of this folk tale, particularly since it is still relevant today on many levels. (Especially that whole futility of working yourself to death thing that corporations seem to be so fond of. Guess things haven’t changed all that much since the late 1800s.)

The legend of John Henry seems applicable to the men who faced down Watson this week on Jeopardy. Okay, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter didn’t prevail over the machine and aren’t exactly folk heroes. However, we’re not exactly a folk hero society.

If the “news” as (ever) presented by TMZ can be believed, there aren’t many ordinary people who do something extraordinary. Sure, “ordinary” people get on reality shows, but can you really trust their authenticity as truly ordinary people? Actors are hired or casting calls are put out for producers of these reality shows hoping to fill a specific niche. They choose people who will appeal to a key demographic or someone with a persona that fits a role required in unfolding the “drama” of reality.
Game shows are probably the last bastion of real people doing something extraordinary. (Although I wouldn’t totally rule out there being a method to casting game shows, either.) By all accounts, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter had done the something extraordinary in maintaining successful and lengthy winning streaks on a game show that is synonymous with well-rounded academic and cultural intelligence. It’s no Socratic forum, but it’s all we’ve got in the 21st century.

In the battle of “man against machine,” you would think most people would be on Team Human. Yet, at the same time, people rooted against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. There were a significant number of people pulling for Watson (22% according to an ESPN poll and an overwhelming portion of pro-Watson supporters who commented on a Mashable.com article).

So, why would carbon-based life forms turn on their own and root for something of a silicone-based nature not named Pamela Anderson? I doubt it’s entirely because Watson is a triumph of science and a monument to the brainpower behind some of IBM’s most talented and creative programmers. And they’re probably not pulling for Watson on the basis of IBM’s corporate citizenship, either. (The technological giant pledged 50% of its Jeopardy earnings to several worthy charities. Conversely, both Jennings and Rutter also planned to donate half of their winnings to charities of their choice, as well.)

I think it’s because, for the most part, we like to see smart people lose. People could root for John Henry on the basis that his strength was of the physical variety. I don’t think that’s solely determined by the prevailing mentality of people in the epoch in which the John Henry legend took root. Take one look at the recent comeback story of Michael Vick and you can see the value placed upon persons exhibiting physical prowess, or on a less singular level, the amount of people who tuned in to watch the Super Bowl. On the flipside, take a look at the current landscape that sees PBS and NPR as frivolous entities and decries “egghead intellectualism” as a bad thing that somehow equates to being “out of touch” or lacking “realness.”

We’re okay with an athlete using his physical gifts to rake in millions, yet, when an ordinary person pulls in beaucoup bucks with their brains, resentment seems to mount against them. Why is that, when both types of people are using their own personal skill sets and genetic gifts to make money? Maybe a good chunk of people are rooting for Watson because they want the smart guys to lose. Factor in that Ken Jennings is a Mormon and that particular religious sect takes a lot of flack from even the biggest Big Love fans and that Rutter just dropped a bunch of weight with the intent to become a Hollywood actor and you may have part of your answer towards why Watson has been so popular with bio-organisms. If you can’t project yourself onto someone, you find it harder to identify with them and harder to like them.

Call me a misanthrope, but I am of the belief that we, as a society, aren’t into what things stand for or what they symbolize on a deeper level. Sure, we love the flag, apple pie, and Chevrolet, but we just associate them with ‘Merica. We don’t stop to think about why we equate these things with the United States and what these icons evoke within us. We just process it as such. There isn’t a greater inclination to want to dig beyond the surface and see if anything of substance exists beyond the veneer of sparkle and spit-polish. We like things that are symbolic, in the sense that we love archetypes and even stereotypes. It just makes it easier to know who to root for or who we can identify with on a superficial level.

I’m guilty of it myself. I’ve watched Jeopardy and voted for or against someone based on what image they project. I’ve fist-pumped when the leopard-print wearing metal chick won big. I’ve jeered the sweater vest-sporting banker with John Edwards hair, rooting against him on the basis that he fit my own personal profile of what I consider to be a douchebag. I’ve also cheered on the underdog from the confines of my couch, exclaiming, “Alright! Fat Boy on the left is making a big comeback!” while shoveling spoonfuls of dinner into my gob in front of the tube.

Kip Dynamite: Loves technology

Nevertheless, I wanted either Jennings or Rutter to win. Not that I’m a technophobe. Like Napoleon Dynamite’s brother Kip, I still love technology. But I like mankind with all its flaws even more. Sure, Watson can process facts and figures it has been programmed with. He can ring in fast and compute complex algorithms, statistics, and mathematical and probability-based outcomes — All things I completely suck at. (This echoes my statement that people root against what they can’t relate to.) Yet Watson can’t do what Jennings did at the end of the third day of the Jeopardy competition.

During “Final Jeopardy,” Jennings had scrawled the correct answer on his tablet screen along with the message that “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.” That was something Watson couldn’t do. A machine doesn’t have a sense of humor. (Unless we’re talking about my iPod, which really likes to shuffle to ironically appropriate/inappropriate songs with great regularity.)

But I digress. Even the brightest machine can’t replace human intangibles such as humor, emotional memory, social cognizance and the ability to sniff out bullshit when talking to someone. I’m not keen on the idea of machines replacing an already struggling human work force and maybe it’s the sci-fi geek in me that fears the worst that technology can turn on those who harness it, more Skynet than Roy Batty. That’s just the paranoiac in me. Yet, for the strong showing Watson made on Jeopardy and the potential for good that IBM’s creation may be able to yield in the fields of medicine and education, there’s hope that maybe man and machine can work together, instead of being pit against each other — once we get past all of our own human hindrances and prejudices.

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