Remote Nomad: ‘Jeopardy’ tries out A.I.

Courtesy of ABC

“Mr. Watson, come here. I want you!”

Fittingly, these were the first words to be communicated via telephone, when the device’s inventor Alexander Graham Bell called, literally, upon his friend in 1876. If this were an English essay, I would dissect the use of the imperative and its implication that humans demand new technology; I would argue that the proximity of the pronouns, separated by the small verb “want,” highlights not only the ability of machine to bring men together but also the intrinsic similarity of man to his creation. What does all of this have to do with the TV shows we know and love and their human-centric content?

This week, “Jeopardy!” called upon technology to sate its viewers’ desire for the inspiration of extreme intelligence, the suspense of competition and the drama of favorites and underdogs. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evening, Alex Trebek played referee to a heavyweight intellectual title match between former champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter and newcomer Watson, the IBM supercomputer. Named for the founder of IBM, Thomas J. Watson, Watson tied Rutter on the first night of play and trounced his opponents on Tuesday despite botching the “Final Jeopardy” in the hopes of winning one million dollars and validating years of development.

The Watson avatar that towers imposingly next to Jennings and Rutter is metonymic of 16 terabytes of RAM, housed in an offsite computer the size of 10 refrigerators. Into that computer, IBM scanned approximately one million documents: books, movie scripts and entire encyclopedias. The computer receives the question via text and breaks down Jeopardy’s notoriously labyrinthine language into discrete units before searching its own content, not the Internet, for the answer.

While the details of what makes Watson tick are fascinating, I’m more intrigued by what this phenomenon means to reality television and the desires of American audiences. James Cameron’s “Avatar” bridged reality and animation with the Na’vi, enticing viewers with the ambiguous state of its actors. “Jeopardy!” never features actors reciting lines and playing roles, but the show is not without its characters: the patient condescension of Alex Trebek, the lazily smug intensity of Ken Jennings. The show even returns from its first commercial break with each contestant sharing a story of his or her regular humanity. In 2011, when you throw a super computer into the mix, Watson, too, must participate in this cult of human potential that “Jeopardy!” enshrines. Watson’s predecessor, Deep Blue, defeated chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov in 1997, when the narrative was of the differences between computers and humans. Watson’s presentation on the show suggests that this technology seeks to optimize human behavior, not render it obsolete.

For example, Watson is palatable visually, standing as a regular plasma screen between his two human competitors as opposed to overpowering them. When Watson thinks, we see dots connect on a globe much in the way our synapses fire, so that we know he is thinking, even if his reaction time would suggest otherwise. As Watson delivers his answer, we see his percentage of certainty, which is communicated in humans by pauses, vocal tone, and facial expression. IBM, and surely the “Jeopardy!” producers, has designed Watson to display simultaneously his equivalence with and superiority to humans. Such a combination renders Watson inherently attractive to viewers.

If we’ve reached the point where a computer can be an attractive protagonist, can we replace human contestants and actors with technology? Movies from the 1980s such as “Short Circuit” emphasize the camaraderie of man and machines and the desire of the latter to enter the world of the former. In three nights of “Jeopardy!,” Watson occupied more screen time than Jennings, Rutter or Trebek, demoting those three celebrities to supporting roles. Do we treat Watson the same way we did Jennings in his heyday — we marvel at his success while secretly hoping he’ll prove fallible? For me, the answer is no. As much as this television event centers on the nature of “Jeopardy!,” ultimately this is a showcase for IBM and its human engineers. We can’t root against something man has created, and, as a result, technology will never fully replace human actors on television, reality or scripted. These forms of storytelling require complementary elements of good guys and bad guys and immerse the reader in their created worlds. If a computer or avatar were the star of a television show, audiences would be immersed in the technology rather than the story and thus would never believe an antagonist. Watson has become a sensation on “Jeopardy!” because he is writing his own story, the story of human progress. Because even an HBO miniseries isn’t long enough to cover all of that.