Is It Time to Welcome Our New Computer Overlords?

Ben Zimmer over at The Atlantic:

Oh, that Ken Jennings, always quick with a quip. At the end of the three-day Jeopardy! tournament pitting him and fellow human Brad Rutter against the IBM supercomputer Watson, he had a good one. When it came time for Final Jeopardy, he and Rutter already knew that Watson had trounced the two of them, the best competitors that Jeopardy! had ever had. So, on his written response to a clue about Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, Jennings wrote, “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.”

Now, think about that sentence. What does it mean to you? If you are a fan of “The Simpsons,” you'll be able to identify it as a riff on a line from the 1994 episode, “Deep Space Homer,” wherein clueless news anchor Kent Brockman is briefly under the mistaken impression that a “master race of giant space ants” is about to take over Earth. “I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords,” Brockman says, sucking up to the new bosses. “I'd like to remind them that as a trusted TV personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground sugar caves.”

Even if you're not intimately familiar with that episode (and you really should be), you might have come across the “Overlord Meme,” which uses Brockman's line as a template to make a sarcastic statement of submission: “I, for one, welcome our (new) ___ overlord(s).” Over on Language Log, where I'm a contributor, we'd call this kind of phrasal template a “snowclone,” and that one's been on our radar since 2004. So it's a repurposed pop-culture reference wrapped in several layers of irony.

But what would Watson make of this smart-alecky remark? The question-answering algorithms that IBM developed to allow Watson to compete on Jeopardy! might lead it to conjecture that it has something to do with “The Simpsons” — since the full text of Wikipedia is among its 15 terabytes of reference data, and the Kent Brockman page explains the Overlord Meme. After all, Watson's mechanical thumb had beaten Ken and Brad's real ones to the buzzer on a “Simpsons” clue earlier in the game (identifying the show as the home of Itchy and Scratchy). But beyond its Simpsonian pedigree, this complex use of language would be entirely opaque to Watson. Humans, on the other hand, have no problem identifying how such a snowclone works, appreciating its humorous resonances, and constructing new variations on the theme.