The IBM computer Watson, appearing on Jeopardy! this week, may defeat the human players. But humanity is the real winner by gaining a better understanding of what real intelligence is.
Question: What is intelligence?
OK, so that probably won’t be a clue on the three special “Jeopardy!” shows this week, ones in which, yes, a computer named Watson – the size of 10 refrigerators, named after IBM’s founder – will compete against two humans, champion players Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.
Still, the question “What is intelligence?” will be on the tongues of many “Jeopardy!” viewers as they watch this megacomputer use the latest in “artificial intelligence” (AI) and try to master the breadth of human knowledge and the depth of the human language.
This historic TV event could simply be seen as yet another milestone in the long quest to create machines as smart as, or smarter than, ourselves. We already live in an age of factory robots, voice-recognition software, complex Google searches, risk-lowering hedge-fund programs, military drones, and the Roomba vacuum cleaner.
In 1997, an earlier IBM computer, Deep Blue, beat chess champion Garry Kasparov. (“Well, at least it didn’t enjoy beating me,” the loser said later.) In the “Jeopardy!” contest, Watson will take a leap far beyond chess mastery – in which the rules are clear and only the math is complex. It will demonstrate an ability to learn from examples and mistakes. It will extract knowledge from terabytes of data, see patterns in language, assess the probability of being right, and even size up the human competition.