Friday, February 18, 2011

Elementary, My Dear

Those of us fortunate enough to be alive at this moment are witnesses to an incredible event.  (Others will have to watch it on YouTube.)  The event is nothing less than the end of human domination on this planet.  Or at least, the end of human domination on TV game shows.  IBM's Watson technology has beaten some very formidable human challengers to become a new champion on Jeopardy!  Following a brief sojourn at Disney World, Watson will begin preparing to face its opponents on Dancing With the Stars and Survivor. Then, after the usual talk show circuit, Watson will compete on Project Runway and may literally throw down Bobbie Flay.  (Iron Chef was thought to be redundant.)

Of course, the talk show appearances may be the most demanding --

Leno: Travel Plans for $2000 ... Disney World.
Watson: What am I going to do now?
Leno: Technology for $2000 ... Medical Research
Watson: What is my next career move?

You see, that's really all it knows how to do.  Did you notice that Alex Trebek failed to chum up to Watson and get any amusing anecdotes?

The fact is that Watson was built just to play Jeopardy!  It doesn't get coffee or answer phones.  It doesn't do your taxes or balance the budget.  It plays Jeopardy!  And it took a team of nearly 50 people to make it do that.  (I know that from counting the faces in the pictures on the IBM Web site.  Could Watson do that?)

I'm not trying to belittle the accomplishment.  Watson is certainly a technological breakthrough, and some of the problem-solving techniques that were developed for Watson could be used in other areas.  In fact, I suspect technologists are much more in awe of Watson than the average TV viewer.  I think most people would say, "Of course a computer would win on Jeopardy!  It's a computer!! Duh!"

In fact, there are rumors Microsoft is working on a rival computer, to be called Bill.  Bill will not only understand questions and answers in the English language.  It will automatically find words in English and register trademarks on them.  And remarkably, Bill is not named after a founder of Microsoft, but rather after its widely acknowledged talent for sending out invoices.

So let's not throw in the towel just yet, humanity.  After all, there's still Wheel of Fortune and Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

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