Watson, human games, and the twilight of the gods

by Rob Tiller

Sally and I flew out to Telluride, CO yesterday for a late winter ski adventure. On the flight from Raleigh were our good friend Charles and Chuck, and we looked forward to meeting up with Gabe and Jocelyn. The flights took off on time and progressed in an orderly way. I made some progress getting through back issues of The New Yorker, Scientific American and Golf Digest, listened to Mozart and Debussy. And as often happens when I travel at 35,000 feet, I found myself in a contemplative mood. As Garrison Keillor says of his private eye character: one man’s still trying to find the answer to life’s eternal questions.

What is the meaning of play? When humans have taken care of the essentials — food, clothing, shelter, sex — it is a large part of what they do. I suspect the same is true of all animals, based on the birds, squirrels, fish, cats, dogs, and other creatures I’ve observed. They all love to play. Children love to play. Put a random group of four-year olds together and a game will almost always develop.

The games people play vary widely according to their age, traditions, fitness, intelligence, financial resources, and moxy. Some like skiing, some prefer bowing. Some go for chess, and others like checkers. The arts are unquestionably a form of play; we even refer to musical activity as playing music. A lot of our verbal activity has little to do with survival and qualifies as mostly play.

Smarter-than-normal people tend to like games requiring a good memory and a quick tongue, and to view success in those games as a badge of honor. Before this week, we mostly felt confident that, whatever our weaknesses and failings, we were superior to all other known beings at such activities. After Watson’s triumphant performance at Jeopardy this week, that’s over.

I didn’t see the entire three Jeopardy sessions, but I saw enough to get the idea. The gifted engineers at IBM have taken artificial intelligence to a whole new level. (By the way, congratulations, guys.) Watson has incredible facility with language and memory. The humans never had a chance. I was reminded of the song about John Henry, the great swinger of the hammer, who drove himself to death but couldn’t beat the machine. (Bruce Springstein does a great high-energy version of the song.). Admittedly, Watson’s abilities don’t extend to the entire range of human intelligence. For example, it isn’t good at creative reasoning — yet. But the day when it will be considered hopelessly romantic to think that humans could be more intelligent than machines is well within view.

So where does that leave us as a species? Consciously or subconsciously, we justify a lot of atrocities on the theory that we’re superior as a species to all others, Could Watson make us just a bit more humble? Could it inspire a bit of self-examination? If intelligence isn’t our greatest achievement, if compared to our computers we’re not really very bright, perhaps we’ll come to view our most important defining characteristics as other human qualities, like love and kindness. What if we consciously cultivated those qualities?