Watching Ken Jennings Lose

Posted by on Feb 22, 2011

By now, it’s old news. And I, for one, am glad the story’s over. IBM created a computer to compete against the two greatest Jeopardy players of all time. And, surprise of all surprises, the computer won. The way Alex Trebek talked about it, I think we were supposed to worship the computer. Or at least we were supposed to welcome this new technological development with wonder and joy. My responses were more of boredom and fatigue.

I’m a big Jeopardy fan. I like the format, the fairness, and the intrigue of watching people who know so much about a remarkably wide array of topics. And I want to go on record as saying that I am not anti-technology. Thus, I was delighted to read that the creation of Watson, the new IBM computer, was not just for Alex Trebek’s excitement. The kinds of technological advances pursued by Watson’s creators will propel us to greater technological breakthroughs in almost countless fields – medicine, environmental studies, space exploration, and many other endeavors that need the very best of our bright minds.

But I didn’t like watching an inanimate object steal the show from Brad (a seemingly likable guy) and Ken (someone I enjoyed watching while he made his historic run – mostly because of his humanness, sense of humor, and ah-shucks kind of self deprecation). I really didn’t like seeing Ken have $400 while the computer next to him had over $30,000.

At one point, Ken was able to ring in before Watson. (I think electronic speed vs. eye-hand coordination may have accounted for more of Watson’s success than intellectual skills. But what do I know). I forget the question and answer but Ken got it wrong. Then Watson rung in and said the exact same thing Ken said. Alex seemed a bit flummoxed. That doesn’t happen with humans – at least, not the ones who make it onto Jeopardy. Alex had to find a polite (why?) way of saying, “No, Watson. That’s wrong. Ken just said that.” You almost expected him to add, “you big moron.”

Part of why Watson’s appearance on Jeopardy bothered me was the seemingly naïve worship of the machine over people. It’s always a bit fearful for me to hear how excited people get about technology. Something just seems a bit out of balance. We need to feel a sense of foreboding that we heard in Jurassic Park when one character remarked, “Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

Why am I ranting about all this? Simply to find yet another way to celebrate what is uniquely human. The reason why people have watched Jeopardy for decades is because it highlights people. If three machines were playing, the show wouldn’t have made past the first week. Part of what we love about Jeopardy is the dramatic contrast between the ordinariness of the contestants (highlighted by their introductions – “a homemaker from Wisconsin”, “a court reporter from New Jersey”, “a high school English teacher from Iowa,” etc.) and their seemingly supernatural retention of knowledge. We both relate to them (especially when Alex interviews them after the first commercial) and applaud them for knowing which countries border Botswana or how many light-years away Alpha Centauri is or where John Steinbeck went to college, etc.

I’m thankful for Watson and other technological advances. But we dare not blur the distinctions between people and machines. Computers can serve us. But it’s best not to have them compete with us.

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