January 28, 2011
When I heard that scientists were working on a computer that would be a contestant on Jeopardy I was pretty excited. Even though this seems like it’s just one step closer to the day our toasters rise up and overthrow us, I look forward to the day our robot overlords assume their rightful place as game show contestants. Honestly, even though I tend to lean toward the skeptical side when it comes to technology, the idea of a computer on Jeopardy is pretty exciting, even though I’ve had Jeopardy programs on my computers almost as long as I’ve had computers. Those programs all gave the computer the advantage because it was host, judge, and, if none of my friends were around, two of the three contestants, which gave it a decided advantage. The new computer contestant doesn’t have the same advantage, which makes me wonder how it’s going to take, say, "Color Me Pink!" for $200 and come up with the right question for "It’s also a fish." A computer that can pick up on puns and verbal nuances and also decide how much to wager if it hits the daily double is pretty impressive. If I may say so it seems a lot more impressive than a chess-playing computer.
When a computer beat grandmaster Gary Kasparov at chess a lot of computer nerds cheered, but I didn’t think it was anything more than a parlor trick. And the computer didn’t win every game, so calling the computer the winner reminds me of a joke: a guy is playing chess with his dog. His friend says, "That must be the smartest dog in the world." The guy says, "He’s not that smart. I’ve beat him two out of three times." Now, I’m not calling Kasparov a dog, but computers have been playing chess since they were using punch cards, even if the computers in question were the size of a city block and took a week to decide on a move. Chess has very rigid, fixed rules with a limited number of possible moves, regardless of whether the computer is white, black, or Deep Blue. Following rigid, fixed rules is what computers do best, after crashing and losing the entire third-quarter earnings report that I’ve spent a week typing in. Computers don’t get tired, flustered, angry, happy, or distracted. In their epic chess match Bobby Fischer accused Boris Spassky of getting coded messages in his yogurt. Of course he wasn’t-as everyone knows the bacteria in yogurt eat coded messages-but wondering what kind of lunatic was sitting across the table might have thrown off Spassky’s game just enough for Fischer to win. That kind of intimidation might not be fair, but it’s all part of the game of chess, unlike Jeopardy, where decorum is maintained and little things like cutting the wire of your opponent’s hand signal are frowned upon. The one disadvantage of a computer as a game-show contestant is that Alex Trebek can’t exactly walk over to it and say, "So, I understand you once met HAL 9000. Tell us about that."