Saturday 03 Dec 2016

Questions, Answers
David Simmonds

You probably saw this one too. Sometime in February we will be seeing an IBM computer named “Watson” face off against two grandmaster champions in a for-the-ages episode of Jeopardy. The computer already won the test trial.          

What’s the big deal? Didn’t the fabled Big Blue computer beat every one chess championship some years ago, only a short while after losing at Tic-Tac-Toe? Isn’t chess on a higher intellectual plane than Jeopardy? Why shouldn’t we hold the excitement until a computer does something impressive, like inventing a two-ingredient cake recipe that is always tasty or a way to get teenage boys out of bed before noon? Because it shows how the computer has enlarged its reasoning base: by being able to form questions based on answers and being alert for puns and wordplay, it is more closely emulating the human mind. In other words, the computer is developing a personality.

‘Jeopardy’ seems a show that could use an injection of personality. With the greatest of deference to the Canadian export host and personality, Alex Trebek, it must take a toll to spend 27 years wearing the persona of the average guy who happens to know all the answers or rather, questions. When he says “sorry Josephine and panel, the answer is not Krishnamurtu but Krishnamurti”, you wince for him and think a computer would do just as well.

If a computer can out-think co-panelists, why should it not develop a snappier personality than those we see in those wooden introductory exchanges between host and contestant?

“Howard, it says in my notes that you are an actuary from Connecticut with two children and a funny story about your pencil eraser collection.”

“Yes, that’s right, Alex.”

“Tell us the funny story, Howard.”

“I can’t believe I’m on TV with Alex Trebek.”

”Like, right away, Howard.”

“Well, Alex, one day I dropped the whole collection on the floor and my wife said, ‘I hope nothing’s broken’.”

“And I bet your children found it funny too, Howard.

“Moving on, we have Dorothy, a librarian from Wisconsin. Dorothy, I bet the job’s good for your circulation.”

”You said it, Alex.”

“Turning to our third panelist, SDCRF985, I’m told you’re into jazz.”

“That’s right, Alex, I just released my Dave Brubeck tribute album, ‘Take 4.736225’. I’m working on a Chet Baker qua Dixieland fusion album with Winston Marsalis. Hey, it’s good to spare a little processing capacity with you.”

”Can I get your autograph”?

Before we leave Jeopardy alone, one thing I can tell you for sure. Computers already compose music. That’s a good thing. Because someday I might hear an alternative to Merv Griffin’s turgid little dirge played during the Final Jeopardy segment of the show.

Why don’t we have computers doing more jobs that appear to require personality? We already have computer-generated characters who read the evening news. Why not have computers take over standup comedy, for example? You’d just have to program in a few news headlines, a little diminished celebrity, some body parts, a few relationships with bad raps, some insults and you’re away to the races.

Just envision two computers hamming it up.

XBI, star of “XBI Late Nite Live,” “You know, UDG, it sure was hot out there today....”

UDG, his straight RAM, “How hot was it, XBI?”

XBI “It was so hot, I thought for a nanosecond that I was hotter than Britney Spears after she discovered that her estranged husband had arranged for her to be captured by aliens.”

Just this small change would result in thousands of comedians gaining the opportunity to lead productive lives.

But if computers have personalities, and can communicate with each other, do they descend to the level of gossip and derision as we do. Maybe they already say something like this,

XBI (in a C-Rated, computers only show) “Do you know how stupid humans can be, UDG?”

UDG “No, XBI, how stupid can they be?”

XBI “Someone read a human a list of 1,000 items to remember and he could only remember 202 of them!”

or this:

From Computer A to Computer B: “If you promise me it won’t get beyond your firewall, did you hear about the health claims database of human number 101010001: too bad his wife didn’t know that!”

Yes, I see a big future for computers that think and behave like humans. It’s about time we surrendered control of the planet to some species with greater capacity for wisdom and bad jokes.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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