Man Vs. Machine -The John Henry Story retold by IBM

man vs machine

Is it time to rethink the advances of technology?

Little can be said for certain about the facts of John Henry’s life, but his tale has become the stuff of myth. He has embodied the spirit of growth in America for over a century. But his legacy cannot be solely summed up in the image of a man with a hammer, a former slave representing the strength and drive of a country in the process of building itself. Something within his story established John Henry as a fixture of the popular imagination.  “John Henry” is the single most well known and often recorded American folk song.

Steel-drivin’ men like John Henry used large hammers and stakes to pound holes into the rock, which were then filled with explosives that would blast a cavity deeper and deeper into the mountain. In the folk ballads, the central event took place under such conditions. Eager to reduce costs and speed up progress, some tunnel engineers were using steam drills to power their way into the rock. According to some accounts, on hearing of the machine, John Henry challenged the steam drill to a contest. He won, but died of exhaustion, his life cut short by his own superhuman effort.

In 2008 as part of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicle John Henry is brought into the picture. John Henry is a sentient computer built by Catherine Weaver’s Babylon team at ZeiraCorp. His initial hardware and software were the Turk chess computer built by Andrew “Andy” David Goode. He is named John Henry by his psychologist, Dr. Boyd Sherman, after the mythical steel driving John Henry of American folklore. John Henry is given complete control over the building’s electrical service at Weaver’s insistence, so that he can route electrical power to his servers as necessary to develop his mind. Input is provided electronically at first, and later through voice recognition. Initially, he has no textual output, and can express himself only with visual imagery. Once connected to Cromartie’s T-888 body, however, he speaks and also see through the lab’s security cameras.

In his brief time working with John Henry, Dr. Sherman is not able to instill ethics in the computer. John Henry is aware that Dr. Sherman is suffering when John Henry routes the building’s power away from the security and climate control systems, and causes a trapped Dr. Sherman to die by hyperthermia, but does not care. John Henry does not understand that death is permanent for humans. He is aware that Dr. Sherman is dead, yet summons emergency medical personnel to revive him. James Ellison who, like Weaver, tends to refer to Biblical scripture, suggests to Weaver that, as John Henry is a computer and can be given commands, she should start with “the first ten”.

In the season finale, after Connors’ confrontation with Catherine Weaver, Weaver admits that she built John Henry AI to fight against Skynet. It’s also seen that John Henry is no longer connected to the server farm in the basement, gaining mobility via what seems to be Cameron’s chip.

In Science Fiction series anything is possible. It however our curiosity that bring Sci Fi into reality. In Mid February we saw another jump from what can only be another step towards making fiction everyday reality. In a special Jeopardy program Watson, the IBM super computer won a three day competition against the  show’s greatest champions: Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

At the end Watson, the machine built by humans, earned a total of $77,147. Jennings collected $24,000 in three days of competition, while Rutter garnered $21,600.“I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords,” Jennings humorously wrote on his video screen, ceding the Jeopardy battle to his mechanical competitor.

Watson’s victory is the culmination of years of research and development for IBM. Watson calculates hundreds of algorithms simultaneously to parse human language complexities such as puns in order to find the answer through its massive database. The machine is powered by 90 32-core IBM Power 750 Express servers with a total of 16 terabytes of memory.

The battle of man vs. machine goes back to the 1800 with legends of John Henry. Today we see the the machines continue to work harder than mankind. And we have to admit that we have just seen another step in our ability to build machine who can supersede us in our thoughts. It’s official: The machines are smarter than mankind, at least when it comes to game shows.