Hanton: Save us, John Connor

Rick Hanton

So for those of you that watched IBM’s Watson 3000 processor supercomputer take on Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter a couple weeks ago, were you rooting for the humans or the computer? I for one, was rooting for the humans, maybe because I couldn’t connect to the computer on an emotional level or possibly because I have a tendency to root for underdogs.

It is tough to see IBM slowly show that their computers can be smarter than the smartest humans we can find. First it was Deep Blue showing the benefits of thinking dozens of steps ahead of the current move in a chess game, now it’s Watson showing that computers can gain an amazing level of comprehension of human speech to answer knowledge questions. What will it be next? Will sites like Google slowly gain the uncanny language insight of Watson during the next decade?

Just think about this, the combined main processors of Deep Blue back in 1997 (there were 30 of them) are today about as powerful as one of the most powerful consumer desktop processor chips. There are even chess-playing computer programs that can run on a laptop and can beat chess grandmasters today. In a decade, will there be smart robots the size of a Roomba that we can give verbal commands to? How cool would that be?

Here at Iowa State, the closest thing we have to Jeopardy is Kaleidoquiz, the 26-hour trivia contest that happens this weekend thanks to KURE 88.5, our local campus radio station. It would really be nice if we had a Watson on our team this year to help us win Kaleidoquiz. As it is, my team and most of the others have become quite reliant on Internet search engines, so much that our main base of operations has been known as the Google Room for years.

But those engines can be beat by hard questions or they can simply provide bad answers. Decades ago when Kaleidoquiz began, Google wasn’t in existence and neither was the Internet itself. Competitors instead raided Parks Library for information that could be sent back by pay phone to their teams. Like many things today, Kaleidoquiz used to take much more footwork than it does now. Today with a simple point and click, we can get all the information we need, right at our fingertips.

What will be the next big thing to be better organized by the millions of computer chips under desks and in data centers around the globe? Watson gained his Jeopardy genius by staring at and categorizing four terabytes of hand-picked data. In the same way, Google’s auto-translation engine became one of the best programs in the world at translating text by analyzing millions of translated documents to create its own statistical logic about how to provide translations. How many other conveniences in our daily life are only made possible by millions of computers working hard on our behalf?

I’m excited about what will happen in our computer-inundated future and hope you are too. The computing power in our office, in our house and now in our pocket keeps expanding endlessly. We just have to be careful to heed James Cameron’s warnings and not give the computers too much control. We don’t want to wake up one morning and find Skynet running the world.