An article by John Markoff in the New York Times looks at the implications for an expected defeat of the best human Jeopardy players by an IBM Watson computer. IBM's chess-playing software has already beat the best human chess players. But Jeopardy is harder for a computer to play because the computer has to decipher the meaning of the English language question and find the answer in a large pool of information.
The implications of progress in A.I. are being brought into sharp relief now by the broadcasting of a recorded competition pitting the I.B.M. computing system named Watson against the two best human Jeopardy players, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.
Watson is an effort by I.B.M. researchers to advance a set of techniques used to process human language. It provides striking evidence that computing systems will no longer be limited to responding to simple commands. Machines will increasingly be able to pick apart jargon, nuance and even riddles. In attacking the problem of the ambiguity of human language, computer science is now closing in on what researchers refer to as the “Paris Hilton problem” — the ability, for example, to determine whether a query is being made by someone who is trying to reserve a hotel in France, or simply to pass time surfing the Internet.
This holds implications for a large assortment of jobs which, until now, have not been amenable to total automation. If computers can start listening to customer requests and complaints then will this accelerate a trend toward zero marginal product workers. where a segment of the human population becomes useless to employers. Will humans avoid the fate that befell work horses in the 20th century? Will humans tell their robot slaves to reproduce in large numbers? If so, the danger to humans of the slaves getting freed from their slavery will go way up.
Plenty of trends are working against continued demand for less skilled workers. Philip Greenspun suggests the cost of lower competency in the work place has gone way up for a variety of reasons. The higher cost of individual mistakes is the most interesting point he makes.
Update: The computer's big advantage in a Jeopardy contest: faster reflexes for pushing the buzzer button. Does the IBM computer software's strengths map well to any tech support call center problem domains? What real world business use case is it going to be good at first?