Is your computer smarter than you?

25 Feb 2011


There’s nowhere left to hide from Artificial Intelligence (AI). Computers are outsmarting us on a regular basis, even subjecting the human race to humiliating defeats on television.

Computers can remember textbooks full of information, students probably can’t

Who would have thought the humble TV game show, a safe haven for bad gags and cheesy grins, would be dominated by AI machines? It makes you wonder if your own desktop PC is actually smarter than you are…

For four years, IBM dedicated a team of 25 scientists to create a £18.5 million supercomputer to take on two of the finest contestants ever to enter US quiz show Jeopardy. And it made mincemeat of them.

IBM’s Watson, armed with 15 terabytes of memory and a room full of processors, was quicker to the buzzer than former maestros Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Watson proved itself to be agile enough to answer the riddle-like questions.

Towards the end of proceedings Watson had beaten his opponent Ken into writing the message: “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.”

Ken’s right to be humble. He’s not the first great man to be beaten by a computer.

Chess machine Deep Blue, again built by IBM, famously took on champion Garry Kasparov in 1996 and initially lost. The IBM boys went away and did some tweaking before coming back the very next year to turn over Kasparov.

The whole world was stunned by this example of a computer getting the better of man. But not as shocked as I was when my Xbox 360 managed to unlock my defence and score two goals in stoppage time to knock me out of the cup.

While these are good examples of computers getting the better of us, they’ve been specially programmed for this purpose. It’s no more impressive than a calculator recalling its times tables quicker than you, or Microsoft Word casually putting a red squiggly line underneath a spelling error.

Watson showed that computers are as gaffe prone as we are. It mistakenly believed that Toronto was a city in the US, when a human of comparable intelligence would know this was not the case.

Kasparov was able to pick holes in Deep Blue’s defence and once he found a flaw, he kept exploiting it until the programmers patched it up. The Russian chess champ also claims that IBM cheated, but as they’ve dismantled the system, we’ll never know.

AI has got to the point where computers aren’t just smart, but can also learn. Yet there’s always likely to be gaps in their knowledge, or at least a lack of understanding of the human character.

Intelligence stretches beyond facts and knowledge into communication. Computers don’t understand humour, such as sarcasm and irony, or human feelings.

Watson might have been a strong contestant on Jeopardy and racked up cash, but there was precious little in the way of banter with the host or other contestants. Not exactly what you tune in to daytime TV for. There was neither celebration, nor disappointment when it failed.

So yes, you can still walk into your room and look that laptop in the eye of its webcam, knowing that you’re better than it. It might be able to recall facts quicker than you and even correct your spelling, but does it get that joke about Sean Connery you love to tell your friends? Not likely.

We can always find a way to get the better of computers. As Emo Philips said: “A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick boxing.”

Do you think computers are smarter than us, or are they just quicker at processing data? Comment below…