Tonight, "Jeopardy" will either be giving mankind a heartwarming Valentine, or helping to usher in our obsolescence.
The iconic game show is kicking off a three-night event that will see two of their greatest champions - Ken Jennings, the record holder for most consecutive games played, and Brad Rutter, the record holder for highest cumulative winnings - take on an IBM-created supercomputer named "Watson." The stakes? It may just be our very existence.
"I felt more pressure than usual," admits Jennings. " I felt like I was chosen to be a champion of the species somehow. Homo Sapiens would be let down if I let the machine take this. This will be the greatest thing on television ever…until dolphins learn how to play 'Jeopardy'."
Adds Rutter: "I feel a little like John Henry, although hopefully I won't collapse dead with a buzzer in my hand at the end of the match. But I imagine people at home with be rooting for either Ken or I to win rather than Watson. You do feel like you're trying to strike a blow for humanity against the rise of the machines."
According to IBM, Watson was specifically designed to "directly and precisely answer natural language questions over an open and broad range of knowledge." The goal, they explain, is to create a computer that can not only store information but process it in human terms. Because Watson's internal system is so complex and its purpose so open-ended, Jennings and Rutter agree that, win or lose, this is nothing short of living history.
"The Jeopardy event is more meaningful in a lot of ways than, say, the chess computer beating Gary Kasparov," Jennings told PopcornBiz. "Answering general knowledge questions has more implications for daily life than the ability to compute moves on a chess board. I think this is the beginning of a lot of Watson-like changes in our everyday life."
When asked if either Jennings or Rutter agree with the recent "Time" magazine article in which author Raymond Kurweil declares that robots will surpass humans in 35 years, the Jeopardy champs aren't as willing to mark their calendars. "In the 1960s, scientists were saying we'd have robots that are smarter than people in 10 or 15 years," says Rutter. "Watson is a big step forward and I think we're definitely on our way there, but any time you put a time frame on it you're kind of playing a fool's game."
The human contestants expressed optimism that the human brain is still superior in some instances. For example, both Jennings and Rutter agree that the more abstract categories like "Before and After" where two answers are linked by a shared word or phrase may not be as easy for Watson to process, and, of course, Watson can't exactly banter with host Alex Trebek. "Even by the low standards set by Jeopardy contestants," jokes Jennings, "Watson isn't the most dynamic personality."
The humans vs. machine episodes will run over the course of three nights, starting Monday and concluding Wednesday. Despite the outcome, Jennings and Rutter are more than ready to take on Watson again. Perhaps even on a different battleground entirely.
"Watson is good at Jeopardy," says Jennings, "but let's see how it does on 'Top Chef' or 'Dancing with the Stars'."