Monday marked the long-awaited debut of IBM supercomputer “Watson” on Jeopardy. It was the start of a 3 day challenge between Watson and the two most successful (and therefore assumed smartest and best) contests in Jeopardy history – Ken Jennings, who had the famous 74-game winning streak back in 2004 and Brad Rutter, who has the highest dollar earnings in Jeopardy history at over $3.5 million.
Now the game is being presented by Jeopardy producers as the ultimate Man vs. Machine battle. Whether or not that’s a fair assessment has been debated. Although Watson has an avatar that sits like a cool-looking inverted flat screen tv in between the other contestants on stage, in reality, he’s hooked up to the equivalent of 2,800 computers that are a conglomerate of 10 I.B.M. servers. In other words, there’s really no legitimate way to say whether or not this is a 1-on-1 contest of man and machine.
The results of the contest, nonetheless, have been quite fascinating. In the first two days of competition, Watson has been dominant. Watson processes all of the information from the clue and, the higher degree of confidence that he has in the correct answer, the faster he buzzes in. And then, proclaiming the correct answer in his almost comically automated voice (still can’t believe they couldn’t improve this aspect), the vast array of scientists sitting in the audience who have been developing Watson for the past 7 years beam with an almost parental pride, and Ken Jennings looks like he wants nothing more than to spill coffee on Watson’s motherboard.
I’m not exactly sure how impressed by Watson we should be. On the one hand, there are interview clips from IBM geniuses telling me that this is as sophisticated as any technology on the planet in language recognition and information processing. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel like Watson isn’t doing much more than flipping very, very quickly through an up-to-date encyclopedia.
I guess what I found most interesting in this experiment was as much what Watson got incorrect as what he got correct. For instance, in Tuesday’s final Jeopardy round, the question/answer was in the category of U.S. Cities (this is important): “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest for a World War II battle.” Both Jennings and Rutter easily got the answer – Chicago. Watson, who fortunately wagered very little due to his commanding lead, answered……”Toronto.” Yes (or oui, oui) the great American city of Toronto.
On the IBM “Smarter Planet” blog, post incident, David Ferrucci, manager of the Watson project at IBM Research, explained how this is just one of those questions that’s “a snap for a reasonably knowledgeable human but a true brain teaser for the machine.” Apparently Watson struggled with certain pieces of information like the fact that Toronto has a professional baseball team in the “American League”. If you want to check out his final jeopardy blunder for yourself, click here.
Truth-be-told, I think the people at IBM are on to something pretty extraordinary here. Language is one of the most nuanced sciences on the planet, very powerful, and very difficult to nail down. I’m amazed at Watson’s recognition thus far. But the combination of advanced technology and language recognition sounds so much like a famous Bible story that I couldn’t resist.
In Genesis 11, we hear the account of the Tower of Babel. After Noah and his family had departed the Ark, his sons and their eventual clans would disperse in various directions according to God’s plan. The Shemites, the group that God had given the special blessing of being the group that the Savior of the world would come through, went southeast, to the ancient land of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq or so). In the Tigris-Euphrates valley they found a fertile area in the plain of Shinar. The lush land seemed comfortable enough to settle permanently, and thus dispose of God’s command to “fill the earth”. As a marker of their permanence and in a clear demonstration of their heart’s desire for sustenance, security, and status, the Shemites then decided they wanted to make a real big “city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4) As you can see, desires for comfort, wealth, and fame have been crowding God out of the hearts of his people for a long time now.
Not surprisingly, the LORD was having none of this. So he stepped in, reminding mankind who created the sciences of the universe and therefore authors technology, reminding mankind who created language and therefore monitors relationships, reminding mankind who alone grants life and prosperity and happiness. Every once in a while, when the world’s most impressive creatures lose sight of their Creator, God stymies their creations. From the Titanic to the Space Shuttle Challenger to the more recent problems of the Burj Khalifa (a modern-day Tower of Babel if there ever was one), the brilliance and insights of mankind have been coupled with our obvious flaws.
At Babel, God scrambled the language of man, thwarting the Shemites attempts at any impressive building project and any longevity as a united people. Martin Luther even called God’s judgment at Babel for the world more devastating than his judgment with the Flood, arguing that the Flood destroyed one generation of mankind, while language confusion has led to confusion, disharmony, hatred, and war for every subsequent generation.
There’s a very fine line between carrying out God’s instructions to “subdue the earth” (Genesis 1:28) and mankind’s arrogance in simply trying to make a name for himself and become like God. Now I’d be the last person to suggest that advances in technology are bad things. Quite frankly, 20 years ago I would not be able to do the very thing that I’m doing today – seeking to communicate God’s Word to people literally around the world. This morning alone I’ve accessed several hundred pieces of information from various sources worldwide and communicated with over 50 people via email. A world with seemingly unlimited God-given potential is quite a blessing.
That said, while we can invent machines to keep people’s heart pumping, we still can’t invent machines to change people’s hearts. While we can invent machines to read people’s brainwaves, we still can’t invent machines that encourage people to suspend their sensory experience to exercise faith. While we can invent machines to enhance and temporarily help maintain life, we still can’t invent the machine that stops death.
The “mankind trying to play God” debate in science issues like cloning, and life preservation, etc. is interesting, but has been milled over enough that we don’t need to talk about it here. What I’d want a Christian to understand here today is that God simply won’t allow his own integrity to be compromised if he indeed feels that it might be. Every once in a while I get a vibe from a Christian that indicates an almost science-fiction type of fear of technology “taking over”. Scripture and history have shown time and again that when humans think they are about to touch heaven, God reminds them that they’re human. So we enjoy technology. We pursue further technology in our “subduing of the earth”. But no matter how many moons we land on, we stay humble and not forget who authors such knowledge, because man’s towers can crumble whenever God says so.