Producing Personhood

Though artificial intelligence cannot yet match the human mind in many ways, further advancement could force us to decide what separates mankind from machines.

During Final Jeopardy in the episode that aired on February 16, 2011, a computer screen sat between long-running stars Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. On it, swirling green and blue lines represented the thought patterns of IBM’s Watson—a question-answering computer system.

Watson’s hardware filled a neighboring room as he worked to process natural language and sift through 200 million pages of data to find the winning answer. The category was 19th Century novelists. Alex Trebek, the show’s host, read the clue: “William Wilkinson’s ‘An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia’ inspired this author’s most famous novel.”

Watson had thirty seconds to find the correct response.

“Who is Bram Stoker?” he answered in typical Jeopardy! style, and a group of IBM scientists jumped to their feet in applause.

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