What it feels like when the computer knows more than you

I have been thinking and talking about artificial intelligence a lot, this past week. For instance, on Wednesday, I went to the Parliament with two other colleagues from Brunel, to talk about the impact of AI on workers, work and the workplace; and, on Thursday, with those same colleagues, we hosted a workshop to examine the impact of AI on strategy, where we covered issues as wide as business transformation, emerging business models, adoption case studies, and ethics and risk.

One common theme across these discussions is that AI makes us question the very notion of human intelligence, and, in effect, the essence of what makes us humans.

Over these two days, I kept remembering a TEDx talk from a few years ago, where Ken Jennings describes what it felt like playing Jeopardy against Watson (IBM’s supercomputer)… and loosing. Jennings had been made famous by winning Jeopardy more times than any other contestant, and ‘knowing stuff’ was a key part of his identity. Jennings said:

I was pretty confident that I was going to win. I had taken some artificial intelligence classes. I knew there were no computers that could do what you need to do to win on “Jeopardy.” People don’t realize how tough it is to write that kind of program that can read a “Jeopardy” clue in a natural language like English and understand all the double meanings, the puns, the red herrings, unpack the meaning of the clue. The kind of thing that a three- or four-year-old human, little kid could do, very hard for a computer. And I thought, well this is going to be child’s play.

But as the years went on, as IBM started throwing money and manpower and processor speed at this, I started to get occasional updates from them, and I started to get a little more worried. I remember a journal article about this new question answering software that had a graph. It was a scatter chart showing performance on “Jeopardy,” tens of thousands of dots representing “Jeopardy” champions up at the top (…) versus the accuracy of those answers. So, there’s a certain performance level that the computer would need to get to. And at first, it was very low. There was no software that could compete at this kind of arena. But then you see the line start to go up. And it’s getting very close to what they call the winner’s cloud. And I noticed in the upper right of the scatter chart some darker dots, some black dots, that were a different color. And thought, what are these? “The black dots in the upper right represent 74-time ‘Jeopardy’ champion Ken Jennings.” And I saw this line coming for me. And I realized, this is it. This is what it looks like when the future comes for you. It’s not the Terminator’s gun sight; it’s a little line coming closer and closer to the thing you can do, the only thing that makes you special, the thing you’re best at.


Watson won handily. And I remember standing there behind the podium as I could hear that little insectoid thumb clicking. It had a robot thumb that was clicking on the buzzer. And you could hear that little tick, tick, tick, tick. And I remember thinking, this is it. I felt obsolete. I felt like a Detroit factory worker of the ’80s seeing a robot that could now do his job on the assembly line. I felt like quiz show contestant was now the first job that had become obsolete under this new regime of thinking computers.


All I know is how it felt to be the guy put out of work. And it was friggin’ demoralizing. It was terrible. Here’s the one thing that I was ever good at, and all it took was IBM pouring tens of millions of dollars and its smartest people and thousands of processors working in parallel and they could do the same thing. They could do it a little bit faster and a little better on national TV, and “I’m sorry, Ken. We don’t need you anymore.”


As somebody who has always believed in the importance of the stuff that we know, this was a terrifying idea to me.

Jennings goes on to talk about the importance of ‘knowing stuff’ (vs. being able to access knowledge about stuff via a machine). ‘Knowing stuff’ helps us connect with each other, make informed decisions and, even, survive. It is a very good talk.


How do you think that AI is going to impact what you do, and what you see as important to who you are?


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