What is the end of the world?

Sorry Cupid, but it looks like Valentine’s Day this year will be remembered more for the soul-crushing premonition of things to come rather than for flowers, chocolate and love.

Starting Monday and continuing through Wednesday, engineers at IBM tasked with the laborious duty of constructing a legitimate, albeit artificial, contestant for “Jeopardy!” will debut Watson, their affectionately-referred-to computer program, as it goes against two of the best “Jeopardy!” champions mankind has to offer.

In what promises to be one of the more frightening altercations between man and machine in recent years, Watson will take on Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Jennings holds the record for most consecutive games played on “Jeopardy!” with 74, and Rutter is the highest grossing “Jeopardy!” player to date with over $3.2 million.

This three-day, nationally broadcasted tournament before a live studio audience will prove to be one of the more fitting poetic battles between humans and the situations that they put themselves in — over and over again — with the modern machine.

This is not the first time humans have toed the line between reality and science fiction. On the Jan. 25 airing of “The Colbert Report,” flying robots no bigger than a shoebox were shown to be capable of constructing small structures without any guidance or direction.

The automobile manufacturer Honda also has a robot, ASIMO, which was famously shown retrieving the morning paper several years ago (minus the towel around its waist of course), and even conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2008.

IBM made headlines in 1996 and 1997 with its attempts to defeat the world’s greatest chess player, Garry Kasparov, with a one-and-a-half-ton paperweight named Deep Blue. Kasparov won the ’96 bout, but lost in ’97.

Hopefully Jennings and Rutter will fare better, for all our sakes.

The producers of “Jeopardy!” do not want viewers to think of this as a gimmick; neither does the team at IBM. Regardless of who you listen to, both camps are excited at what has been accomplished to this point and eager to see where artificial intelligence might go from here.

For the general public, however, palpable fear should be coursing its way through ever-tightening arteries and veins as the inevitable end rapidly approaches.

Depending on which side of the fence you are on, such challenges as chess matches and game shows could be seen as harmless advances in the field of robotics and artificial-intelligence design. For others, however, such displays and taunts of power are only fueling the imminent fire uncontrollably hell bent on human eradication.

Arguably more disturbing than the machines themselves, and the growing number of accomplishments to their credit, are the men and women programming them. Many claim their allegiance to mankind and the human race by stating quite emphatically that their intent is to not allow machines the availability or capability of taking anything over. Scenarios like those found in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” or even those described in the Terminator series are purely science fiction — nothing more.

However, these experts fail to realize that in both fiction and reality, certain actions cannot be fully appreciated until after the fact, sometimes when it is too late. Messing with such devices, particularly the mixing of fiction and reality, can potentially present serious problems for all.

An example of this would be Cyberdyne, an actual Japanese company founded in 2004 that has gone on to create their very own H.A.L. Strangely, the company seems unaware of any comparisons or implications of robot domination that could be made at their expense, but it could also just be an attempt on their part to get in line with whomever they feel will ultimately be the winning side.

And then you have IBM. Wishing, wanting and creating machines with not only the gift of gab, but also with the abilities of thought, action and reflection. What was once actually “uniquely human” is now a mere sequence of 1s and 0s.

The proverbial line in the sand has been drawn, and over the next three days the answer will not only come in question form, but it will ultimately decide the fate of everyone — and thing — involved.

Reach the reporter at jbfortne@asu.edu


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