Reference Librarian vs. Computer!

“Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real.” wrote Jules Verne, (Around the World in Eighty Days) and many people have dreamed of a computer that functions like the human mind only better. Now there is a computer as smart as a reference librarian, and equally as smart as all-time Jeopardy money winner Brad Rutter.

Shades of “Desk Set” you say? No, not even close. But, read on about this 21st Century computer.

Yesterday, ABC News reported in “IBM’s Watson, Brad Rutter Tied After Round One of ‘Jeopardy!’ Match-Up” that at the end of Day 1 of the human vs. computer matchup, Watson was holding its own.

Monday night, all-time “Jeopardy!” champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter faced off against IBM’s super computer Watson in the first round of a three-day “Jeopardy!” challenge.

What I found most ironic was one reporter’s slant on the matchup. Adam Buckman stated in his Comcast Post “Humans more than held their own against a new IBM supercomputer on Night One of this week’s three-day “Man vs. Machine” challenge ….” Apparently, Buckman felt the computer was the favored contestant being challenged by humans. My bet is, MANY people feel the same, and in less than 10 years – they will be more accurate and faster than humans at answering questions.

When “Jeopardy!” first called [Ken Jennings] a couple of years ago to let him know that IBM was working on a supreme game-show machine, Jennings said he was “skeptical.”

As a former computer programmer himself, he said, he knew the computer’s limitations and doubted if IBM actually could pull it off.

But when he watched taped matches of Watson playing against top human contestants, he realized that beating the computer was hardly a foregone conclusion.

“Clearly, it was playing at a very high level. It sort of effortlessly handled the kinds of things I thought computers couldn’t do,” he said. “It could understand wordplay, it could understand things that were more conceptual than a single fact.”

Still, Rutter said, despite its mistakes, Watson is a very powerful computer.

“I think humans will be surprised,” he told “Especially because it’s just “Jeopardy!” clues like you see every day on the show. To see a computer actually figuring it out, with all the little twists and turns and puns that they like to get in there, even factoring those in. To see how well Watson is doing, I think might scare some people.”

“Ken and I are representing humanity in this thing but, at the same time, Watson was developed, built, programmed by human beings,” said Rutter. “So I think humanity wins no matter what happens.”

And beyond even that, Jennings said that playing the world’s most sophisticated computer gave him a new appreciation for the humble human brain.

“I was impressed at the end that the human brain — just a few dollars worth of water and salt and protein and whatever else we have in our skulls — that that could hang in there and play at the same level as this jillion-dollar computer the size of a room,” he said. “It says a lot for the human brain that with what we have we can hang with the world’s most powerful computer. It’s sort of a newfound respect for what our heads can do, which we take for granted sometimes.”

Obviously, Jennings was discounting his education, time and effort learning facts and trivia, and practice playing Jeopardy that made him champion, but……….

Flash back a half century to the 1957 film that had a happy ending in which Spencer Tracy the computer inventor, and Katharine Hepburn the reference librarian fell in love. The three of them including EMERAC the punch card driven computer with lots of flashing lights and beeping sounds all lived happily ever after, because the computer helped the reference librarian do more work faster and better. That was Hollywood.

The reality today is that Watson will replace the reference librarian, because this computer has a million times more data in its memory, can respond to reference questions posed in spoken language, and provide a set of possible answers from which the inquirer can choose, with probabilities of accuracy for each answer. When was the last time you heard of a reference librarian giving a library customer several possible answers to a question?

Watch for yourself what Watson can do, and see what IBM has done, then tell me that reference librarians will not be replaced in the next 10 years.

Watch “Jeopardy” and see Watson in action – if you dare.

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