With IBM's Watson on 'Jeopardy!,' how trivial is trivia?
Friday, February 11, 2011; 3:00 PM
"Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek isn't afraid he'll be replaced by a machine. "It's a possibility," Trebek told me recently, "but it won't happen for a few years." After all, the machine would require "infinite patience, great wisdom, a sense of humor, which is hard to build into a computer. And tenderness when dealing with contestants."
But perhaps he should worry. Trebek has made a good living testing his contestants' knowledge for almost three decades, but an upcoming match against the IBM-designed Watson supercomputer might put the whole realm of trivia in, well, jeopardy.
This coming week, Watson will compete on "Jeopardy!" against two of the quiz show's greatest champions. For almost four years, researchers at IBM programmed this computer, the size of 10 refrigerators, to answer questions - or, rather, question answers in classic "Jeopardy!" format. They scanned a universe of knowledge into its capacious 15 trillion-byte memory: great literature, mathematical and scientific formulas, the name of every pope and Best Actress Oscar winner. To call this compendium of information encyclopedic would do it a disservice. It's practically Wikipedic - but without the looming threat of inaccuracy.
And Watson is a formidible adversary. Humanity stores an increasingly large percentage of its knowledge in computers or on the Web. Whether humans win or lose this week's match, IBM is forcing us to ask: What is the point of trivia?
These days, Trivia Buff has been supplanted by iPhone Guy. Once, when you needed knowledge, you opened a book or phoned a friend. Now, you Google it. The capital of Delaware or the length of Humphrey Bogart's inseam is just a few clicks away.
Once, the sudden, burning urge for new information was the fuel of trivia enthusiasts. "I kinda get so wrapped up in facts and stuff," said Brad Rutter, a "Jeopardy!" Tournament of Champions winner who is one of the humans who battles Watson in this week's pre-taped showcase. "If I'm wondering about something, it bothers me until I go find out the answer."
But now that it's so easy to find the answer, why carry it around in your brain? Rote memorization is a thing of the past. State capitals? Please. The dictionary? You have an iPhone. Libraries? You have a Kindle. With a keystroke, you can answer any question, and it's no fun to be a know-it-all when everyone else is, too.
"Trivia geeks are not the public resource they used to be," admitted Ken Jennings, the 74-game "Jeopardy!" champion who will be representing humanity alongside Rutter. "Now that Watson can play 'Jeopardy!' at human levels, has my one real talent been stolen away?"
If we can find information instantly on any subject, we are also less likely to retain any of it. It's the hook-up culture applied to facts - wham, bam, thank you Bing. Why bother learning anything specific? Have GPS and Google made trivia a trivial pursuit?
And there's Watson to contend with, too. "It did make me appreciate the human brain," Jennings noted. "The protein and salt and whatever . . . that little bit of tissue could hang in there with a billion-dollar supercomputer."
There's still a value to knowing things, Jennings contends, not just knowing where to look them up. "Even when machines are doing more of our thinking and remembering for us, it'll be more useful to have the wealth of information," he said. "To make informed decisions about anything in life, you need to have knowledge. If you need a Google search, you're still at a disadvantage."
This is true. Facts, when we have them, shape our thinking and fill the contours of our arguments. There's only so far you can go in any line of inquiry before some essential knowledge - what Jennings calls "the roughage of facts" - becomes indispensable. And then there is the difference between knowledge and wisdom, a gap that so far Watson has been unable to bridge.
"I don't think we want to outsource our thinking to any machine," Jennings said. "I don't remember phone numbers anymore because my cellphone does, can't figure out what time of day it is by looking at the sun, but thinking and recall and analysis - these things are too central."
Yes, machines save us effort. Dangerous, backbreaking tasks are now performed by robots. Algorithms predict and feed our musical tastes. Computers fly planes and Predator drones. But there is a point at which convenience ends and laziness begins. We're freeing up a great deal of mental space - for what? To think about Justin Bieber? No wonder we seem worried the machines might take over.
Rutter, at least, isn't sweating. " 'Jeopardy!' will still have humans for a long time to come," he said. "Until we have implants in our brains."
Alexandra Petri writes for The Washington Post's editorial page.