Friday, February 18, 2011


“It gives me the creeps,” I said to Mark. Less than an hour had passed since I’d witnessed the crushing defeat of the best-ever Jeopardy champions by an IBM computer named Watson. I don’t know what kind of reaction I expected, a little appreciation for my empathy with the human race perhaps. Seeing none, I continued, “I don’t like to see humans being vanquished by computers.”
“Really Mother,” Mark soothed. “Be realistic. The computer doesn’t know anything not taught to it by humans. It’s just that it can search faster.” It was a short conversation, decidedly unsatisfying. Mark might have spent longer debating the issue had he not been rushing to get things done. He and Tracey were packing for their trip to Hawaii. They were taking a laptop—a travel necessity these days.
I didn’t bother reminding him that we used to take him to Hawaii with only the clothes he could carry in his tiny red backpack. He only needed shorts after all. It was back in the days when you could travel without Internet access. Even I have to admit that travelling in 2011 without Internet access is probably less convenient than carrying a laptop. So I let Mark get on with the packing. But it still gives me the creeps.
David and I took a course on how to use the Internet. It was back in the dark ages, possibly 1995, back in the days when our computer didn’t seem to know much at all. It could only manage word processing for us grown-ups, and thrill Mark with the challenge of on-line games using a dial-up modem. We expected more.
After the course was finished, and the Internet successfully connected at home, I told David’s father what we had learned. “There’s email,” I said. “We’ve got an address now and any time we want we can write to other people who have addresses on their computers.”
“Who will you write to?” he asked reasonably. In these matters he was a reasonable man.
“Nobody,” I said. “We don’t know anybody with an address. Maybe you’ll get one and we can write to you.”
“Maybe,” he said, looking doubtfully in the direction of his own computer. His computer was a modern machine equipped with software to keep track of the family tree. Right next to it sat the telephone on which he called us at regular intervals between our weekly visits. Phone calls were free. Letter writing was not part of our usual communication paradigm. I could see he was not sold on email.
I had the feeling I was letting him down—that some expectation lay within him, unfulfilled. Wanting to make amends, I plunged in further. “And then there’s the Internet,” I gushed. “It’s like a huge worldwide library where you can search for anything.” Even as I said it my spirits were lifting. Here was a man who adored libraries.
“Oh,” he said, brightening. “Are there books on the Internet?”
“No,” I admitted, and then added, not wanting to be too definite, “Not that I’ve found anyway.”
“Can you search on the Internet for branches on the family tree?” he asked.
Now here was something I hadn’t tried. It seemed a reasonable enough request, given his passion for the family tree, and the fact that a family tree is a straightforward collection of data. So I gathered up the wisdom I’d gained in the class and asked our computer to find some branches on a family tree. And then, when it clearly could not meet this request, I lowered my standards and asked it to find just about anything I could think of. Eventually it found the website of our Internet service provider. That, it said, was about all it knew at this point.
Sadly I reported my findings to David’s father. He accepted the news with a sigh of resignation. Like me, he had high hopes for machines, but he was also realistic.
This was the man who, some 20 years earlier, had introduced me to a thoroughly modern instrument, the hand-held calculator. It was a squarish, paperless thing, a little too big for a pocket, more suitable in size to a man-purse. $175.00 ‘he’d paid for it, an alarming sum, yet a bargain in some ways. Why does he need it, I’d wondered. He was, after all, an expert teacher of mathematics. But he said it would be a great help, faster than paper and pen.
Today is Friday, my day alone at home. What have I done? Well, I’ve answered an email request from a student. I’ve downloaded two audio books by Edna Ferber. Searching the web I have located a video version of a song our choir will soon be singing, and stumbled upon several references to my name in the family tree. If I wanted to take the time, I could probably locate a tech museum that displays those ancient handheld calculators that were so big and awkward they couldn’t even fit into a shirt pocket.
David’s father had one reservation about his new calculator, a nagging worry about the future students who would live and die by the calculator, never learning enough math so as to be able to judge whether the calculator’s reckonings were right or wrong. They would be, he said, enslaved by this machine, victimized by their own entry errors, seduced into a false sense of knowing what was accurate. The calculator, he repeated, should be used for speed. It could do math faster than a human.
I thought of all this while watching Watson play Jeopardy on TV. As usual, the game had three players. But this was a game with a difference. Only two of the players were human, Ken and Brad, the two most successful players in the game’s long history. The third player was a computer, or rather, a family of networked computers named Watson.
Designed specifically by IBM for this purpose, there seemed no limit to the things Watson could do. He could speak as clearly and as eloquently as many of Jeopardy’s best geeks and nerds. He could choose categories, he could ring in when he thought he had the answer, he could select an amount to bet on the Daily Double, he could even make wrong guesses. But one fact trumped everything. They played two full games, and it didn’t take a mathematician to see that there really was no competition. Watson could beat the best men who ever played Jeopardy.
This morning, in a search for something that would replace my creeps with optimism, I reminded myself to remind Mark and tracey to send us some email from Hawaii. Then I went onto the Internet and read about IBM’s plans for Watson. He will help doctors make accurate diagnoses. In the space of a heartbeat he will find all the medical information available about treatment. Apparently he will even be able to cut through the gobbledygook that pads the spaces between the important facts published in professional journals. Watson will be put to good use in the service of humanity. There’s hope in that.
And, one more thing. Unlike the handheld calculator which, after 40 years, is still the recipient of many invitations to assist with math, Watson won’t likely be invited back to play another round of Jeopardy. The reasons for this are entirely human. Jeopardy is supposed to be fun. The game is simply not fun when he plays. He’s too fast.

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