The story told by “Jeopardy!” champion and host Ken Jennings during his Bryant University talk, “Artificial Intelligence: Exploring the future together,” had all the makings of a classic folk tale — a John Henry yarn for a modern age. In a 2011 televised competition, Jennings, the most celebrated “Jeopardy!” competitor of all time, met IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence in a uniquely human field of battle — the game show test of trivia and problem-solving at which Jennings had made his name.
The best and the brightest matched up against an inhuman opponent in a titanic struggle. This time, however, the story took an unexpected turn. At the end of the competition, Watson emerged victorious, raising new questions about the rise of artificial intelligence and the role it would play in determining, and perhaps undermining, humanity’s future.
“I'm not an expert on this field, but I am an expert on what it feels like to lose their job to a machine,” he told the crowd with amused chagrin.
Organized by the Bryant Applied Math and Stats Association and the Actuarial Association and supported by a raft of other campus organizations, including the Bryant Law Society, the Honors Program, and the Center for Student Leadership and Involvement, Jennings’ May 10 talk was part of Bryant’s annual STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Speaker Series. The presentation, and the conversations it inspired, provided the campus community with an opportunity to come together and discuss the future.
Jennings’ talk, says Luke Lamontagne ’24, a lead organizer for the event alongside Colby Phillips ’23, offered an ideal entry point to an important subject. “Artificial intelligence is a topic that’s both very relevant and very new to people,” notes Lamontagne. “There are so many different practical ways it’s going to affect our lives — and it will do even more in the future. By making AI part of our college education now, we’re all going to be better prepared as we enter the workforce.”
"‘Jeopardy!’ was always kind of a safe space for me. It was a place where knowledge, knowing stuff, learning stuff, and being smart was not just tolerated; it was actually celebrated."
Over the course of a wide-ranging lecture, Jennings, the author of 12 books and the host of the “Omnibus” podcast, mixed humor with thoughtful reflection as he discussed his triumphant 74-game run on “Jeopardy!," his fateful match against Watson, and how we should reconsider our own humanity in the face of ever-evolving thinking machines.
His interest in the topic, he admits, springs from his own self-examination and, how as a person whose identity became inextricably intertwined with that of “trivia master,” he now lived in a world where a computer might take that title. Growing up with a talent for learning and retaining facts, he fell in love with the program. "‘Jeopardy!’ was always kind of a safe space for me. It was a place where knowledge, knowing stuff, learning stuff, and being smart was not just tolerated; it was actually celebrated," he says. Auditioning for the show in 2004, he would go on to establish himself as the program’s all-time winner and amassed more than $2.5 million before bowing out.
So, when he was asked to return for a 2011 match against Watson, he jumped at the chance to play the game again. “Playing against Watson seemed like the future to me. I was always a science fiction kid, and seeing robots playing on game shows? Of course, I wanted to be onstage when everything changes,” he remembered.
His initial confidence in a human victory in the match, however, began to suffer, when he was sent progress reports detailing Watson’s increasing prowess. “This what it looks like when the future comes for you,” he suggested. “It’s not a Terminator laser eyepiece tracking you down in an alley; it’s just a line on a chart gradually but inexorably moving closer and closer to human performance — to the thing that you can do that you think makes you special.”
But actually losing to the machine on national television was still a shock. Jennings walked the Bryant audience through the fateful game, the keys to Watson’s commanding victory — and it’s “thought” processes — and the aftermath, in which humans were jarringly reminded that AI is constantly improving and gaining abilities that were once thought to be uniquely human.
“The thing that makes you weird is the thing that makes you irreplaceable.”
“My whole life had been spent thinking that it's important to acquire knowledge and learning because you never know when it's going to come up — and if nothing else that's guaranteed to pay off on “Jeopardy!.” And now I've learned that that's all a lie,” Jennings remembers thinking. “I was, maybe, the first person made obsolete in a new information economy.”
Yet as he learned more about artificial intelligence, he reaffirmed his faith in human agency. As we face a future where AI is increasingly important — from ChatGPT to self-driving cars — Jennings advised that we retain our own human ability to learn, process, and extrapolate information.
If we allow those abilities to atrophy, he suggested, we risk limiting our own potential, and being less equipped to deal with the important issues. Our curiosity and our ability to problem-solve are two of our greatest strengths as a species, said Jennings, and we can’t afford to cede our agency, especially when the rise of AI poses an unprecedented host of moral and societal questions. Otherwise, we risk losing our own humanity.
“Please, if you have some talent, if you have something that makes you special or unique, please remember, whatever that thing is, it’s sacred,” exhorted Jennings. “The thing that makes you weird is the thing that makes you irreplaceable.”
Though immensely powerful, AI, he argued, is just another tool, and it’s up to us to determine how we use it. As we embrace the potential of the machine, Jennings concluded, we should be careful not to lose ourselves. "We are now at the inflection point between the “Star Trek” future and the RoboCop dystopia and, my friends, it's kind of going be up to us which of those two worlds you decide to live in," he advised.
The discussion continued after the presentation, when Jennings met with student organizers and other members of the Bryant community. The room was filled with energy and debate — the evening’s goal, says Phillips. “Bringing together everyone under one umbrella for a conversation and to exchange ideas and get to know each other is very important. Even though we’re all part of different clubs and different majors, these issues apply to all of us,” he says.