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A massive effort to create a giant nerd

Our desire to create a machine that’s smarter than we are is kind of pathetic.

Watson is some machine.

Named after the founder of IBM, Watson is a supercomputer worthy of the title. Built from 10 racks of IBM servers, it has 15 terabytes of RAM and the processing power of 2,800 of the most powerful computers on the market.

Watson is a humdinger, all right. But even with all that firepower, so far it has only managed to tie a human contestant on Jeopardy!. As I write, there are two nights left to go, and Watson better get game or it’s going to lose to some guy named Brad.

Watson is a quantum leap ahead of the most famous IBM computer to date, Deep Blue, which humbled world chess champ Garry Kasparov in 1997.

But as impressive as Watson is, it still has trouble with trivia. During a dry run before its appearance on Jeopardy!, it answered the question: “What do grasshoppers eat?” with “Kosher!” causing its programmers to choke on their pastrami sandwich and write another million lines of codes to correct the problem.

Is it just me, or is this a massive amount of effort to create nothing more than a giant nerd? A nerd that can answer most trivia questions in three to five seconds, but a nerd nonetheless.

Consider the evidence. It plays chess. It competes on Jeopardy!, the exclusive domain of nerds.
If these IBM scientists had a life, maybe they could create a machine that does something useful: Pick stocks that only increase in value; remember where I left my car keys; or find a decent restaurant in Nanaimo.

Instead, it’s really good at identifying the names of Beatles songs from their lyrics. Big deal. I already know how to do that.

According to some experts, Watson’s ability to answer questions will revolutionize call centres. Great. Instead of getting some bozo from South Carolina, we’ll get some bozo from the cloud answering the question: “What’s this $350 charge on my cellphone bill?” with “Would you like to speak to my supervisor?” and then hang up.

Our desire to create a machine that’s smarter than we are is kind of pathetic. After all, we’re limited by that fundamental law of computing: Garbage in, garbage out. We can only create a reflection of ourselves. Which explains why Watson is so easily confused. It’s one of us.
Meanwhile, Watson and Brad conclude their epic battle tonight. May the best nerd win.

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