Object of the Game

Computers have mastered chess. They’ve cracked “Jeopardy!’ But it seems even they can’t figure out “Game of Thrones.”

Maybe there’s hope for the human race.

For those of you who care about the recently concluded HBO series, be warned – there’s spoilers ahead. (Also, Darth Vader is Luke’s father, Rhett leaves Scarlett, and “Rosebud” was the sled. Just saying.) On the other hand, if Westeros isn’t your cup of tea, stay with me, OK? I promise, we’re going somewhere from this.

OK, back to the computer.

Game of Thrones is known for a high body count among its heroes and villains, with survival rates that are about as good as a Denver Broncos head coach. (The joke goes that when George R.R. Martin logs onto Twitter, he kills off all 280 characters.) So, computer science students at the Technical University of Munich in Germany were given a challenge – create an artificial intelligence algorithm that would predict who had the best chance of surviving the final season.

They programmed the AI. They fed it the data. And they concluded the most likely survivor – a 99 percent chance! – was the Mother of Dragons herself, Daenerys Targaryen.

This would be the same Daenerys who got stabbed to death in the final episode, by the way.

Oops.

I’m sharing this for a few reasons. First, as a reminder that computer intelligences depend on our intelligence, and are only as good as the assumptions we make. Second, to reassure diehard Daenerys fans – and oh, my, there are a lot of you on the internet – that even the experts were on your side.

But most of all, I wanted to point out that the biggest survivor of all wasn’t even on the list. I don’t mean any of the kings or queens or dragons or warlords …  not directly, anyway.

I mean the story.

The story that engrossed people for eight seasons. The adventure that had millions of people arguing about the fate of its characters, before, during, and after its conclusion. Love or hate, agree or disagree, the tale was not being ignored.

That’s powerful.

And it’s a fundamental part of who we are.

I’ve said this here before: we are creatures of story. We look for meaning, narrative, connection in every part of our lives. Sometimes we find them in Westeros, or Middle-Earth, or a galaxy far, far away.

But many times, we find our story in something bigger yet. The causes we stand for. The beliefs we hold. The traditions and histories we carry on, and where we see our role in them. Those are stories on an epic scale, ones that men and women would willingly die for.

Have willingly died for.

We’ve reached another Memorial Day. It’s the time when many of us recount the stories of our fallen – who they were, what they did, why they did it. It’s also a time, perhaps, when we think of the story that motivated them to fight and die in the first place – the dream made real, the ideal made true, the hope that a particular hope could be carried on through generations.

Because ultimately, that’s what our country is supposed to be. A hope. A promise. An imperfectly kept promise, it’s true, at many times to many people. The story is far from finished, always being written, always taking shape.

But it’s still our story. Through all its twists and turns, we still have the power to write the next chapter.  And with that, the duty to remember the authors who came before – military and civilian, young and old – and consider what the story they’ve given us mean, and what our part in it will be.

“There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story,” Tyrion Lannister declared in the final episode of Game of Thrones. “Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.”

Take up the tale. Tell it well.

Because no computer ever made can do it as well as you.

 

@%#%!, My Dear Watson

Anyone got any digital soap?

They may be looking for some at IBM, where the renowned computer Watson has been making headlines again. And like many a young celebrity, those headlines aren’t exactly what its “parents” have been hoping for.

No, the supercomputer hasn’t developed a taste for booze, babes and lewd appearances at the MTV awards shows. But it has – however briefly – picked up a mouth that only a gangsta video could love.

That’s right. Watson, the silicon “Jeopardy!” champ, has learned how to swear.

The blog io9 described the achievement with a fair degree of amusement.  It seems that after Watson clobbered humanity’s two biggest “Jeopardy!” winners and retired to a life of medical research, its handlers wanted to improve its natural language skills by teaching it slang. So, someone gave it access to the online Urban Dictionary.

That lasted, i09 says, until Watson told a scientists that something was bull … er, excrement.

Yup. Time for the Lifebuoy. Or at least for a partial memory wipe.

My wife Heather pointed out that this was quite the achievement. After all, everyone swears at their computer, but how often does the computer swear back? It’s an ominous milestone; can the day when a computer reboots its programmer and threatens to throw it out a window be far behind?

But for now, I’m not worried. When it comes to mischief, even the sharpest computer alive – er, manufactured – doesn’t hold a candle to Missy.

Regular readers of this column have probably become quite familiar with Missy, Heather’s nearly 40-year-old developmentally disabled aunt whom we care for. I’ve written a lot about her attention and wonder as we read together, about her joy in the simplest things, about the near-silence with which she moves through life, punctuated by the occasional handful of words.

But make no mistake. There’s another side to this sweet, charming lady.

We call her Ninja Missy.

It’s Ninja Missy who turns up the stereo in her room to max and then slips into my home office to turn on my computer, often blowing the display up to 10 times its normal size in the process.

It’s Ninja Missy who will sometimes flush the toilet to avoid any proof that she hasn’t gone before bed. Or who will occasionally wash off a toothbrush to “show” that yes, she brushed her teeth before lying down. (Add innocent smile here.)

But Ninja Missy’s greatest achievement may have been the flying penguin.

One of the sillier games that Heather and Missy will play involves throwing a stuffed penguin back and forth, with each trying to “zap” the other before she can catch it. It leads to a lot of giggles and the occasional “thump” as the doll hits the wall, and the fact that it keeps Missy’s arm in shape for softball doesn’t hurt, either.

But there comes a time when all games must pause, and Heather broke off one night to go cook dinner. As she was getting things ready, she heard a plaintive call of “Mom …” from upstairs; usually the sign that Missy needs help with something.

Heather came to the foot of the stairs. And was nearly clocked by a high-speed penguin.

Missy had lured her into an ambush.

And that, my dear Watson, is where Missy has the edge on you. And probably will for a long time to come.

All good mischief requires planning. And right now, all of Watson’s planning is done secondhand. It can embarrass its handlers with a bit of profanity – but only because another handler made it possible, not because it got curious and started roaming the Internet one day.

Missy, for all her limits, conceived and executed a plan of her own. A rather effective one at that.

That gives her more imagination and initiative than any collection of microchips ever assembled.

So I’m not worried about “our new computer overlords,” as Ken Jennings once put it. Not with Ninja Missy on our side.

I swear.