Watching Watson, the latest IBM supercomputer, devour two past “Jeopardy!” champions last month caught the nation’s imagination. On one level, there is a technocratic pride in accomplishment: IBM created a machine of such computational ability that it could “decode” and respond to the puns, allusions and oblique clues of “Jeopardy!”
But to those of us who are still not sure about what all the buttons on our microwave do, Watson also seems like the latest mile marker on the road to some science fiction dystopia: Imagine the killer cyborg sent into the past by the Skynet super computer in “The Terminator,” or any of dozens of other movies that have portrayed smart machines gone bad.
First chess. Now television game shows. Can human enslavement by machines be far behind?
One could argue that our enslavement has been in the works for a long time. As a bit of humorous photorealism last Christmas, my wife and I sent out a family photo that had the two of us looking at the camera while the four kids sat around us, all staring at their various lap tops, phones, and gaming devices.
Indeed, the accelerating pace of technological change is probably captured best in the popular imagination not so much by Watson as by the iPad, which is just a year old and is turning the world of personal computing and media consumption upside down once more.
So, if outsourcing doesn’t take our jobs, some computer seems bound to. Time magazine may predict that human beings could become “immortal” by the year 2045 — because “humans and machines will become one” — but immortality isn’t looking all that hot right now.
Machines won’t just be replacing manufacturing workers in the future: They could be replacing radiologists and many other doctors, accountants, perhaps lawyers as well. Our elites are suddenly not looking so elite, and the rest of us may feel like chopped liver.
Of course, if we Catholics believe what we say we believe, we know that immortality already exists, that the human soul is real and does not reside in any man-made thing. But ours remains a civilization enamored of science, and we are a lot more comfortable confirming religious tenets with science (prayer is good for our blood pressure!) than believing even when science cannot confirm or deny that which faith tells us is true.
From a spiritual perspective, the real temptation is reductionist: We are all machines. Computers are made in our image, and now we understand ourselves in theirs.
So isn’t it amazing that while Watson was dazzling couch potatoes, a revolution in the Arab world was literally ignited by one man doing a most irrational, unpredictable, defiant act. Mohammed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia, had reached a breaking point in a cruel world.
Humiliated by a policewoman, this father of eight set himself on fire to protest his treatment within a corrupt and stagnant society.
Provoked by his action, others took to the streets, and their protests first toppled Tunisia’s ruler, and then sparked a conflagration that has shaken or toppled almost every other government in northern Africa and the Middle East.
This is not rational, not the subject of deep computation. This is about the indomitable human spirit, about the ability to be inspired, to rise above.
One does not need to commit suicide, but one does learn in the wisdom of the saints and the example of the Cross that sacrificing oneself — a choice of heart and soul no machine could replicate — is the greatest affirmation of our humanity.
It is anything but elementary, Watson.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.