"Watson": Mankind's Triumph

This past week I was glued to television's Jeopardy quiz show. IBM's Watson computer was one of the contestants and played against Jeopardy's two leading human champions.

Watson won, quite handily. In the process, so did mankind. IBM researchers have successfully moved computing several gigantic steps forward into more natural, more contextual, and more "human scale" problem solving. Computing has just moved much closer to us and to our needs. This new "information concierge" will be incredibly useful in fields as diverse as medical diagnostics, customer service, and scientific research, among others. Watson-like follow-ons will draw upon the vast and fast-growing amount of information that mainframes manage. I can already imagine how tightly-coupled "Watson engines" would be able to answer naturally phrased questions and solve tough business problems, even providing frequently updated answers in near real-time.

As I watched Watson in action, I remembered the 1957 film Desk Set, starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Here's an excerpt from that film in which the new EMERAC computer provides a quick and accurate answer to a tough question:

Even Watson would have some difficulty answering that particular question in quite that way. Hollywood's vision of the future was well ahead of its time, although Watson finally closes much of the gap. Also, as the film later revealed, EMERAC couldn't replace humans. Even EMERAC's owners, the Federal Broadcasting Network, didn't think it could. Transformative technologies like Watson (and like the telephone) seem to promote even more growth and human activity.

Even so, late night comedian Conan O'Brien poked some fun at Watson in this video:

Even without his baseball bat, Conan's sidekick Andy Richter has nothing to worry about. In fact, maybe Watson could help Conan's writing team improve the quality and popular appeal of their jokes. It might take a few more years, but if today's Watson can sift through terabytes of information to identify useful patterns and interrelationships, perhaps tomorrow's Watson can be taught how to look for better puns and for more original jokes, nominating candidates for Conan's monologue. Granted, IBM probably has more immediate applications in mind, but who knows?

by Timothy Sipples February 17, 2011 in Innovation
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