Welcome, Skynet Overlords!

| February 17, 2011

It was a big to-do this week: IBM’s Watson super-computer was to go head-to-“15-terabyte data bank” against human competitors for fame and glory on this week’s Jeopardy!


At the beginning of the week I didn’t give it much thought: “Meh, a computer playing a man. Big deal!” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this was an interesting event. Watson won – I was disappointed about that. But Ken Jennings – the guy who played against Watson – had this to say after the match:

“But there’s no shame in losing to silicon, I thought to myself as I greeted the (suddenly friendlier) team of IBM engineers after the match. After all, I don’t have 2,880 processor cores and 15 terabytes of reference works at my disposal—nor can I buzz in with perfect timing whenever I know an answer. My puny human brain, just a few bucks worth of water, salts, and proteins, hung in there just fine against a jillion-dollar supercomputer.”

Its heartening to know that Mr. Jennings didn’t feel completely defeated by Watson. Though it seems a bit of a  demoralizing and Ayn Randishly invigorating realization of the breadth of doggish human achievement to have a machine completely wallop a man – who, one should note, possesses near-machine ability at playing Jeopardy! (excalamation point is part of the show’s name)

I for one, am interested in how science teachers, if any did, covered this event?  Technology is way more prominent in schools now than it ever was (obviously). Many classrooms have Smartboards, students are more “plugged in” than ever and even books are becoming more readily available in the digital format (i.e., Kindle, Ipad). I am not sure what Watson’s triumph means for the future of education, but it could mean something if we channel his energies in the right way.

Sure, the existence of Watson is a testament of human “innovation and ingenuity” but what will IBM use him for? Will Watson be replicated? (Most likely). If so, how will those replicated versions be used? What will super-computers mean for the future of education? If they mean the ability for more students and teachers to engage with science in a meaningful way that promotes learning and encourages critical thinking and problem solving then that’s great. Jennings did say that he held his own against Watson. But if Watson is just going to be a rolling (walking, scrolling?) Wikipedia then I’m not sure that I’m sold. Can he/it be more interactive in the classroom?

Other fellow teachers: what are your thoughts on this? Also, read Ken Jennings’ article on the experience here.

P.S. Is anyone else nervous that this is the first sign of a Skynet revolution?