Is It Time to Welcome Our New Computer Overlords?

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Oh, that Ken Jennings, always quick with a quip. At the end of the three-day Jeopardy! tournament pitting him and fellow human Brad Rutter against the IBM supercomputer Watson, he had a good one. When it came time for Final Jeopardy, he and Rutter already knew that Watson had trounced the two of them, the best competitors that Jeopardy! had ever had. So, on his written response to a clue about Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, Jennings wrote, "I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords."

Now, think about that sentence. What does it mean to you? If you are a fan of The Simpsons, you'll be able to identify it as a riff on a line from the 1994 episode, "Deep Space Homer," wherein clueless news anchor Kent Brockman is briefly under the mistaken impression that a "master race of giant space ants" is about to take over Earth. "I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords," Brockman says, sucking up to the new bosses. "I'd like to remind them that as a trusted TV personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground sugar caves."

Even if you're not intimately familiar with that episode (and you really should be), you might have come across the "Overlord Meme," which uses Brockman's line as a template to make a sarcastic statement of submission: "I, for one, welcome our (new) ___ overlord(s)." Over on Language Log, where I'm a contributor, we'd call this kind of phrasal template a "snowclone," and that one's been on our radar since 2004. So it's a repurposed pop-culture reference wrapped in several layers of irony.

But what would Watson make of this smart-alecky remark? The question-answering algorithms that IBM developed to allow Watson to compete on Jeopardy! might lead it to conjecture that it has something to do with The Simpsons -- since the full text of Wikipedia is among its 15 terabytes of reference data, and the Kent Brockman page explains the Overlord Meme. After all, Watson's mechanical thumb had beaten Ken and Brad's real ones to the buzzer on a Simpsons clue earlier in the game (identifying the show as the home of Itchy and Scratchy). But beyond its Simpsonian pedigree, this complex use of language would be entirely opaque to Watson. Humans, on the other hand, have no problem identifying how such a snowclone works, appreciating its humorous resonances, and constructing new variations on the theme.

All of this is to say that while Ken and Brad lost the battle, Team Carbon is still winning the language war against Team Silicon. The "war" metaphor, incidentally, had been playing out for weeks, stoked by IBM and Jeopardy! to build public interest in the tournament. The press gladly played along, supplying headlines like the one in the Science Times from Tuesday, "A Fight to Win the Future: Computers vs. Humans." IBM knew from the Kasparov vs. Deep Blue days that we're all suckers for the "man vs. machine" trope, going back to John Henry's mythical race against the steam-powered hammer. It certainly makes for a better storyline than, say, "Check out the latest incremental innovations that Natural Language Processing researchers are making in the field of question-answering!"

I first encountered IBM's hype about the tournament last month, during the NFL's conference championship games, when Dave Ferrucci, the ebullient lead engineer on the project, showed up in commercial breaks to tell us about the marvels of Watson. One commercial intriguingly opens with Groucho Marx telling his classic joke: "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I don't know." Ferrucci then begins: "Real language is filled with nuance, slang and metaphor. It's more than half the world's data. But computers couldn't understand it." He continues: "Watson is a computer that uncovers meaning in our language, and pinpoints the right answer, instantly. It uses deep analytics to answer questions computers never could before, even the ones on Jeopardy!" Then a Jeopardy! clue is displayed: "Groucho quipped, 'One morning I shot' this 'in my pajamas.'"

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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He writes the language column for The Wall Street Journal.

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