Overlords or Overhyped? Watson and Jeopardy

Chuck Colson

Overlords or Overhyped? Watson and Jeopardy

At the end of a recent Jeopardy competition, former champion Ken Jennings said “I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.”

Jennings quote from The Simpsons was intended as humor, but there are many who are taking what happened on Jeopardy as a sign of things to come.

As you’ve doubtless heard, Jennings and fellow Jeopardy champion Brad Rutter were defeated decisively by an IBM super-computer named “Watson.”

“Watson,” more than a decade in the making, has nearly 3,000 state-of-the-art microprocessors and, among other things, nearly instant access to the entire content of Wikipedia.

For all this power, the principal reason Watson won was that it was better at buzzing in after Jeopardy host Alex Trebek read the clues. As Jeopardy fans know, it’s not enough to know things -- you have to have great reflexes to buzz. Watson’s advantage in this area allowed it to control the game and defeat Jennings and Rutter.

This is not to denigrate and IBM’s and its partners’ achievement -- “Watson” is a formidable piece of technology. But to read and hear the hype that preceded and followed “Watson’s” win, you would think that humanity had reached some kind of transformative point in its history.

I mean that literally: The week before the Jeopardy competition, Time magazine ran a story about scientist Ray Kurzweil and what he calls “the Singularity.” That’s when truly intelligent computers are supposed to transform what it means to be human.

By 2045, Kurzweil envisions a world of machines whose “intelligence” far exceeds our own. At some point afterwards, we will “merge” with these machines; that is, we will transfer our consciousness into machines and transcend the limitations of our bodies. We will become, as Time puts it, “immortal.”

Bud this robotic millennialism reduces human intelligence to the ability to process information. In this reductionism, human language becomes just another, albeit “subtle,” way of inputting that information just like keystrokes or a touch-screen.

The idea that we will able to “upload” our consciousness proceeds from a series of flawed assumptions: for one, mind and brain are not the same. In fact, the latter is an organ and the former is a state of being. The mind, which is just another way of saying “consciousness,” employs the brain, but it isn’t identical to it anymore than a driver is identical to a car.

The brain can be x-rayed, handled. Our mind and all the things that make us distinctly human and separate us from the animal world -- reason, love, emotions, appreciation for beauty -- are not mechanical or even biological. They cannot be digitized, broken down into a line of zeroes and ones. We can only observe them working out in practice as the mind determines behavior.

Then there’s the inherent Gnosticism of thinking you can separate us from our bodies. Christians, the people of the Incarnate Word, know that our humanity is inseparable from our bodies. Christians believe, after all, in the bodily resurrection of the dead. We believe in the unity of mind, body and spirit.

So human nature is not the sum of the information we carry; and it can’t be transferred to any thing or any machine. Even a machine that can win at Jeopardy.

Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: March 3, 2011