“It’s Elementary, My Dear Watson”

Some time ago, IBM’s newest supercomputer named Watson succeeded in defeating two of the all-time most successful human contestants on the popular TV game show Jeopardy![1] For many, this latest man vs. machine battle brings to mind the epic 1997 chess match which pitted the world’s greatest chess champion, Gary Kasparov, against IBM’s then most impressive piece of machinery, Deep Blue. Kasparov lost that match, and now a 15-terabyte language-processing, answer-fetching machine named Watson has chalked up another victory for the machines, prompting some to speculate whether evil robots like Hal from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey will eventually turn on their masters and rule the world.[2]

Science fiction aside, Watson’s dual trouncing of Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter forces us to rethink what makes us different from the machines that can now beat us in chess and Jeopardy! On a very basic level, the machines we build are emblematic of the values and ideas that shape our culture. If we desire food and entertainment, we build ovens and televisions. If we value knowledge, we build a Watson. And like ovens and televisions, Watson owes its existence to its human creators, who in this case happen to be remarkably intelligent and innovative IBM engineers. Thus, while new technology may showcase a range of talents and abilities that meet or surpass what we humans can do ourselves, the very emergence of such technology provides a further glimpse into the inventive aspect of our own humanity.

But the question remains: How do we know when we’ve built something that’s good and not potentially destructive? If we choose not to unplug our machines in fear of a Terminator-styled Skynet coup d’état, how do we, as Ken Jennings humorously put it, “welcome our new computer overlords”?[3]

jeopardy

It’s hard to argue against the need for superior wisdom on the technological front. We have benefited enormously from the wave of technological advances begun during the Industrial Revolution, but we have also seen weapons of mass destruction and environmental ruin follow in its wake. As we forge ahead into the brave new world of Deep Blues and Watsons, it’s clear we need true wisdom in handling the technologies we create.

But this much-needed wisdom, I would argue, cannot be obtained unless we first ask some elementary questions of our own existence. We cannot anticipate how technologies will be used, whether they will be beneficial or destructive, unless we first know something about our own programming and the Inventor who created us. At the outset of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin writes, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”[3] Granted, Calvin didn’t envision the possibility of anything like Watson, Hal, or Skynet, but his remarks equally apply. If we don’t know who invented us or why we were invented, won’t it be all the more difficult to know what to invent or what to do with our inventions?

Paul McClure


[3] Also see: Jennings, Ken. “My Puny Human Brain” in Slate Magazine. 16 Feb. 2011. http://www.slate.com/id/2284721/

[4] Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Ed. John T. McNeill. Trans. By Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), 35.

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