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IBM's Watson on Jeopardy: is this the beginning of the singularity?

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Ray Kurzweil weighs in on the evolutionary significance of a computer competing on a brain-challenging game show.

On February 14th through 16th, the reigning champions from Jeopardy! are returning to take on a formidable new competitor -- a supercomputer. IBM's “Watson” supercomputer -- under development for four years -- will compete against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near and a proponent of the convergence of humans and machines, weighed in on what this match means, and who is likely to prevail.

In a new interview with USA Today, he observed how a computer, IBM's Deep Blue, beat the world's reigning chess champion, Gary Kasparov, in 1997. However, for a computer, chess is child's play compared to the challenge of a game show such as Jeopardy, Kurzweil says. "This threshold is going to be harder to dismiss," he explains. "What people have emphasized, and I've agreed, that the key to human intelligence is really mastering the subtleties of human language --  things like puns and jokes and metaphors. If you look at the queries in Jeopardy, they’re really quite complex and subtle, and exactly what they’re talking about is not so clear.  Watson appears to be able to get it." (Watson already won the practice round.)

Even if Watson doesn't win this upcoming match, "it will come close. And it will come back and win in the very near future, because it's only going to get better. And humans are not getting better."

Kurzweil calls the Watson Jeopardy match-up a "milestone" in the progression of machines to achieving human intelligence, which will be reached within 20 years, he believes. But people shouldn't fret about a machine invasion, he adds. "We're creating them to make ourselves smarter. We're going to literally merge with them."

By 2045, Kurzweil predicts, "we're going to multiply the current human intelligence a billion-fold -- which is really not so fantastic when you consider how far computers have come already."

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure