Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

I'll Take 'New Computer Overlords' For $1,000, Alex

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Jeopardy contestants Ken Jennings (left), Brad Rutter and a computer named Watson. i

Jeopardy contestants Ken Jennings (left), Brad Rutter and a computer named Watson. Carol Kaelson/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Carol Kaelson/AP
Jeopardy contestants Ken Jennings (left), Brad Rutter and a computer named Watson.

Jeopardy contestants Ken Jennings (left), Brad Rutter and a computer named Watson.

Carol Kaelson/AP

I know that one day soon, they'll be able to build a computer to do what I do — whatever that is — with many improvements.

A computer that has a truly resonant voice, not some nasal urban twang. A computer than can pronounce the name of new international tennis contenders and heads of state without sounding like his tongue is about to jump the rails. A computer that knows everything in the news, and won't talk so much about his daughters or the Chicago Cubs.

I so note because the victory of Watson, the IBM supercomputer, on Jeopardy! this week is another occasion that prompts us to contemplate where our species stands in relation to computers.

Ken Jennings, one of the Jeopardy! champions competing against Watson, even tried to cultivate a little favor just before he lost by scrawling on his answer screen, "I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords."

Hard-drive kisser.

Humans had a distinct biological disadvantage in the contest: thumbs.

The opposable thumb has done a lot for our species — I'm talking to humans now. It let us use tools, which changed our brains. Opposable thumbs helped us build the Pyramids, the Parthenon and Wrigley Field. Opposable thumbs help us operate iPhones, do thoracic surgery and put onion dip on a cracker.

But it takes a quarter-second for a human brain to signal a thumb to push a buzzer. Watson buzzes directly.

So we shouldn't be chagrined that a computer might be better at Jeopardy! — or chess or retrieving the lyrics to the Cheers theme song — than a human being. Machines of our device have been replacing us since the wheel replaced rock haulers.

Watson is still a triumph of human imagination and engineering. Twenty IBM researchers and technicians took four years to fill him with enough information to win a quiz show.

Every few years it seems, we have to cross off another word that we can use to finish what Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert calls The Sentence: "The human being is the only animal that _____."

We've learned that other species, from birds to elephants, can use twigs and stones as tools. Quite a few researchers believe that many animals feel grief, empathy and generosity — which we used to consider distinctly human traits. And every year, engineers experiment with computer software that writes poetry or paints in the style of Cezanne or Matisse.

I'm going to venture a new guess: "The human being is the only animal that has a sense of humor."

If you ask Watson, "Why did the chicken cross the road?" he might reply, "To get to the other side." That's a logical answer. It's demonstrably true. It's been said before. But it takes a human being to think it's funny.

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Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small