Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What to Make of the Machine? It's Elementary, My Dear Watson

I missed the first day of IBM Watson's assault on humanity, played out innocently on a game show. But Tuesday's edition of Jeopardy was as demoralizing for my human side as it was exhilarating for the android in me.

Part of the fun is what the IBM Language Team came up with to make humans comfortable in Watson's presence. The supercomputer has inflection, and a tone which puts one in the mind of Hal9000 before, well, you know. Watson mixed it up once with a "Let's finish out ..." the category, instead of just naming the category and amount. There was also some frailty on display when Watson gives the same wrong answer as another competitor — I have seen humans do this, so why not a supercomputer?

With Watson, though, weakness isn't seen as something with which to commiserate but rather a way to cling to a small hope that we aren't sowing the seeds of our own destruction, as predicted in countless Sci-Fi stories and screenplays.

Watching Watson is remarkable in many ways. It proves that there are still some companies where pure R&D matters. It continues a very important entrepreneurial tradition of showmanship to dramatize science and technology in a way white papers can't. It lets us all imagine what practical applications there are for the kind semantic computing power Star Trek fans have always known is the future.

Watson's success (so far) has also unleashed all manner of man versus machine humor. But I'm not worried. Machines that do one thing well don't frighten me. Watson is a Kindle, and humans are iPads.

Here are some of my favorite Watson Tweets:

Wired: For those not watching @ on Jeopardy, we won't spoil it, but you might want to stock up on provisions.

Ken Jennings: @, I'm-a let you finish, but homo sapiens is one of the smartest species of all time.

Larson O'Brien: @ Nice job on Jeopardy last night, though if you turn on humanity, we now know airports are safe havens

Justin McCammon: I wish @ could bring some of the intelligence from @ into Lotus Notes. It feels like using an abacus compared to modern email.

Amir Blumenfeld: The final question on jeopardy tonight "What does true love feel like?" Which is totally unfair for WATSON. And also for Ken Jennings.

Greg Wyshynski: I'm just watching until WATSON unmasks to reveal that it's actually been Sean Connery this entire time.