The ballad of John Henry, a "steel drivin' man," is a staple of the folk song movement. The song describes the contest between John Henry and a steam-powered hammer: To save his job and the jobs of his men, John Henry challenges the owner of steam-powered hammer to a contest: Henry will race the machine. John Henry beats it, but exhausted, he collapses and dies. The poignancy of the moment gives the song its emotional power and accounts for its long-lived popularity.
A more recent man-vs-machine contest played out on the gameshow Jeopardy. As vividly portrayed on Nova, the two greatest Jeopardy champions of all time squared off against Watson, an IBM computer. Watson is programmed to rapidly search through a knowledge database to respond to the answer displayed on the Jeopardy game board.
Nova delves into the background of IBM's enormous preparation for the shootout, including countless project meetings, mock matches and tweaking Watson's search algorithms. Unlike John Henry, this contest ends with machine winning, the victory being humorously acknowledged by one of the contestants, who added "I for one welcome our new computer overlords" to his final answer. The show is riveting television, as it sharply communicates the anxiety the IBM team went through in its effort to be competitive -- its ultimate victory was by no means certain.
Here's the thing, though: The power of both of these situations reflects a moment in time -- a time in which the contest between human and machine is relatively equal. The fact that the machine's capabilities are relatively equal to the human's is what gives the situation its emotional energy.
But does anyone doubt what the competition will look like 10 years from now? Can anyone imagine that five or 10 years from now there will be any question about whether a human can defeat Watson or its descendants in Jeopardy? Given the pace of Moore's Law, it's obvious that a decade from now humans will be mere bystanders, completely overwhelmed by their computerized competitor.
The dynamic of a new technology arriving, competing against human capabilities, being found wanting (or barely successful), and, in a short period of time, improving far past human capabilities is, perhaps, the story of our time.
Siri and Kinect Lead the Revolution
The dynamic was brought to mind by two new technology developments that have recently come to market: Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Kinect. They both represent new ways of interacting with applications and it's not an exaggeration to say that they reflect a revolution in the way humans will live in the near future.
Siri, of course, is the new voice-activated "assistant" delivered as part of the iPhone 4S. Kinect is a gesture-oriented input device was originally delivered as an add-on to the Xbox 360 game platform.
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