I have been watching Jeopardy the last couple of nights. Two past legendary champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, are being challenged by an IBM computer named Watson. After two nights the humans are getting slaughtered. While watching you get the feeling that you are viewing an extended IBM promotional video, but we are also seeing a contest played out in reality that has been part of American folklore for almost two centuries. Paul Bunyon and Babe, the blue ox, and John Henry, 'a steel drivin' man,' met defeat in contests with machines that could do their jobs better. Pecos Bill rode a tornado into eternity because the cowboy way of life was disappearing. All three fictional heroes lost out to advancing technology. And it seems in this real-life contest Jeopardy heroes Jennings and Rutter are going to be stomped by Watson.
Watson's presence and inevitable domination also brings to mind uncomfortable even frightening images from science fiction. There are three examples that immediately come to my mind: 2001: A Space Odessy in which H.A.L., a smooth talking computer, takes over; I, Robot, where a super-computer becomes self-aware and goes for world domination; The Terminator series where Skynet, a super computer, decides humans are the enemy and proceeds to try to exterminate us. There are other sci-fi examples that are to numerous to mention, but you get the idea. The fact that Watson's voice has been described by some commentators as "pleasant" is not much comfort either; so was H.A.L.'s.
Whether it is American folklore from a century and a half ago or science fiction from the last sixty years the idea that technology improves our life seems to always be at odds with how it may diminish our humaness.
It gives us reason to ask big questions. For instance, "What makes us human?"
One constant, clear, and consistent affirmation of our humanity and our importance is given in Genesis 1: 27 "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." (NRSV)
Another affirmation comes from John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life."
A case could easily be made that all the Bible is an affirmation of our struggle to understand our humaness in the light of God's patient, loving, forgiving, and steadfast word to us that we can best understand ourselves when we embrace the relationship with God offered to us through Jesus Christ.
One telling moment in the contest between Watson and his competitors occured during Final Jeopardy on the second night. Watson missed the final question. At the time Watson had a $32,000 lead. The audience gasped (the humans had answered correctly) and waited to find out how much Watson wagered. In a very non-human moment it was revealed that Watson's wager was just over a miniscule $900. Any self-respecting person with that big a lead would have risked thousands. I am not going to argue whether that would be wise, but Lord help us it would be very human.