Welcoming the overlords

Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing is by a couple of IBM-ers, Director of Research John Kelly, and Steve Hamm. It shows. This short book is all about the promise of current massive increases in computers’ abilities rather than the disruption it will cause. It mentions Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s Race Against the Machine, but it would be good to read this book alongside their new one, The Second Machine Age. With that caveat, it’s interesting to read this short book about what the insiders think is likely to happen.

Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing (Columbia Business School Publishing)

The book starts with the famous victory by IBM’s Watson over two humans in the TV game show Jeopardy. One of the defeated men, Ken Jennings, famously said afterwards: “I for one welcome our new computer overlords.” The introductory section explains the key difference with the next generation of very powerful computers, the move away from the Von Neumann architecture – with its key bottleneck of moving data to and fro between CPU and memory – and instead having more parallel calculations with memory and processing more closely integrated. This will increase the machines’ capacity and enable them to go beyond specific programmes for specific tasks. They will be able to learn. Having just read Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings, though, I now feel a bit more optimistic about the complementarity between humans and robots – it’s hard to see how even smart machines can be taught or can acquire intuition given the way logic is integral to their structure and programming.

Later chapters of the book look at big data, at the new physics of computing – what future microchips could be like – and specifically at cities and the potential for cognitive computers to make them better places for their inhabitants. A key issue, given both the tendency for political power to shift from nation state to city level and the continuing move by humanity into cities. I suspect computer experts will be familiar with the material in this book, but I didn’t and it was an enjoyable travel read.


3 thoughts on “Welcoming the overlords

  1. I feel sure Jennings was referring to a 1994 Simpsons episode in which tv newsreader Kent Brockman believes that space ants are about to take over the earth.

    ““One thing is for certain: there is no stopping them; the ants will soon be here. And I for one welcome our new insect overlords. 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.”

    That, in turn, was probably inspired by Joan Collins’ line in 1977’s film adaptation of the H.G. Wells science fiction story Empire of the Ants, “I for one welcome our new insect overlords.”

    Video of the latter, and much more, is at

  2. It may have been Kasporov who said that rather than computer v chess master the most interesting match would be two grand masters each with a supporting computer.

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