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Ah, puny mortal, I will crush you with my brain

IBM pits Watson, its supercomputer, against a couple of 'Jeopardy!' all-stars. You can guess who wins, although Watson does have vulnerabilities.

February 12, 2011|By Melissa Maerz, Los Angeles Times

Already, Watson's challenging our ideas of what makes us human. In his book "Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything," which follows Watson's four-year development, Stephen Baker wonders: If Watson can upstage Jennings and Rutter, then what is that type of intelligence worth? Men with vast strength once played a valuable role in society, but after the invention of cranes and hydraulic pumps, muscles became little more than the biological equivalent of peacock feathers. Monks once spent lifetimes memorizing texts until the invention of the printing press made that skill irrelevant.

Does that mean question-answering technologies will make "Jeopardy!" champs obsolete as models of human intelligence? "You mean, has the trivia nerd been outsourced to Google?" says Jennings, laughing. "No, that's silly. Just because we invented the car doesn't mean we don't still do track and field events. In a future world where answers are always a click away, we'll be even more impressed by these 'Jeopardy!' contestants who actually know all their state capitals. It will seem like a much more unusual skill."

Maybe "Jeopardy!" fans will always find a reason to root for their own species. Though a win for Watson might qualify as a bigger triumph for human progress. "Human progress!" says Rutter. "We're the humans!"

Yes, Watson is almost as smart as a human, but maybe it's more amazing that Rutter and Jennings are as smart as a supercomputer. Besides, Rutter says, there are still a few human capabilities that Watson hasn't mastered. "Maybe they can program it to talk trash later on, but there's none of that going on now," he says. "If Watson beats me, at least it won't enjoy it. And there is some solace in that."

melissa.maerz@latimes.com

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