Just as Watson, IBM's artificial brain, began to win at Jeopardy, we heard that government computers in Ottawa had been hacked.

Now, I'm not pointing fingers. As far as I know, Watson has not (yet) been configured for hacking. But I do think the events are connected.

The connection is driven home by a third event that you and I have in common at the moment: the launch of our new CBC website with its fresh bells and whistles.

Of course, the connecting point I refer to — the feeling that we are riding on a speeding train of computer technology that none of us really controls — has been expressed so often and in so many ways that it has become cliché.

But even clichés have their uses. This one is especially worth examining in a week when we come face to face with a computer that suddenly makes thinking and talking machines seem like a certainty in my lifetime.

The feat of the computer engineers who created IBM's Watson is astounding, and, clearly, I am not the only one who thinks we will see other manifestations of Watson in our daily lives.

Following the news coverage, including an excellent documentary called The Smartest Machine on Earth on the PBS show Nova, IBM shares rose sharply.

HAL is here

Science fiction likes to warn of the apocalyptic, and now we appear to be on the verge of learning that some of the seemingly fantastical technologies found in works of the genre — like Skynet from the Terminator movies or HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey —  are on the way if not already here.


Jeopardy! contestants Ken Jennings, left, and Brad Rutter, far right, pose on Feb. 16 with IBM's artificial brain, Watson, which crushed its two human opponents on the quiz show. ((Jeopardy Productions, Inc./Associated Press) )

Sure, it's scary. But in the meantime, wouldn't it be nice to be able to just speak up and ask your computer, "Anything good on the tube tonight?"

Idiomatically smart computers like Watson won't care that you no longer watch TV on any sort of "tube" or that TV is no longer on "tonight" but "whenever."

Which brings me to one of the other coincidental computer events this past week, the CBC.ca redesign.

"Well, Don," you might say, "that's a different magnitude to creating an intelligent computer." And you would be right.

But for those of us involved, its proximity increases the intensity.

To help you understand, I will describe a recent session with other CBC News hacks who have grown up in radio, TV and print that left some of us feeling breathless.

The session in question was about how we would assign and prepare material for use on the CBCNews.ca website.

Now, radio, at its best, is warm, personal and evocative, and despite the many technical changes, we have the basics down.

TV has more moving parts and constant innovations, but we know the pattern.

As for online writers, most of whom come from print, they know how to sum up a story in 10 inches of copy.

But now, everything has changed. Now, we are producing content for your computer and mobile telephone.

Law of the cyberjungle

Suddenly, we are no longer just creating linear news broadcasts. Now, we are combining searchable segments of audio, video and text — some short, some in depth, all in formats that can be explored and delved into on different platforms.

What's more, the traffic is no longer one way: from us to you. Twitter and comments and user feedback become part of the package.

Not only is it unfamiliar to those of us who are a little long in the tooth, but even our online experts at the leading edge aren't entirely sure what's coming next.

It makes us want to shout, "Stop the train! I want to get off and figure it all out."

And if we feel like that, think about the people trying to protect their computers from international hackers, which is another order of dizziness altogether.

If the research computers in the Canadian defence department can't protect themselves, who is safe?

A creative paranoid might ask what worms or viruses are sitting in banks and communications networks right now, waiting to set all accounts to zero at a moment of someone's choosing.

Computer security is like the law of the jungle: the evolving antelope runs fast, so the evolving cheetah must run faster.

The race never ends, and the train can't be stopped. There's no driver to tell. We may be on our way to HAL in a handbasket, and it is damn hard to put on the brakes.