Man vs. Watson: The IBM Jeopardy Challenge

In 1877 Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. Ever the showman, Edison liked to demonstrate his device by allowing people to speak into the machine, after which he’d play the recording back for them. However, back in the late 1800s, the technology was outside almost everyone’s conceptual understanding. Up to that point in history, the only thing that could mimic the sound of one’s voice was a ventriloquist, so people thought it had to be a trick. Clergymen came to pronounce it “the devil’s work” and to discredit Edison.

But here’s the really fun part. Edison used to charge people 25 cents to try to “fool the machine.” A person who spoke Latin (a dead language) would speak Latin into it and, of course, it would speak Latin back to the person. People wondered how Edison was able to teach a machine to speak Latin. A person who spoke Chinese into the machine would hear Chinese right back. Again, people wondered how the “Wizard of Menlo Park” taught the machine to speak Chinese.

They simply didn’t understand the concept of a recording. And certainly no one had ever heard a recording of his or her own voice.

Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Can you imagine seeing a technology and completely misunderstanding what it was doing and how it might work?

For most people, that’s what happened on February 16, 2011. That’s the evening that a very sophisticated IBM computer named “Watson” beat two human opponents in a friendly game of Jeopardy.

The match was broadcast over two days, giving the blogosphere, Twitter, and Facebook time to light up with pro-Watson and anti-Watson sentiment. In almost every case the arguments went something like this:

Moron 1: “Machines will never be better than people!”
Moron 2: “Yes they will!”

Metaphysicist: “Machines will never fall in love!”
Physicist: “Neither will I. So what?”

Theologian: “Machines will never achieve consciousness and will never have souls.”
Atheist: “They don’t need consciousness, simple self-awareness will do, and no one has a soul.”

Creationist: “If God intended man to fly, he would have given him wings.”
Evolutionist: “We’ve been inventing tools to make our lives better since the beginning of history. Watson is simply another tool that we have created with our God-given brains!”

An extraordinary amount of writings proliferate online by passionate parties on both sides of the John Henry argument. (Surely you remember John Henry, the “steel driving man”—a mythological nineteenth-century folk hero who collapsed and died after winning a race against a steam-powered hammer. Good story, and there’s a pretty good song that goes with it too.)

Sadly, it’s the wrong argument and absolutely the wrong way to look at the event.

First, let’s congratulate IBM and the producers of Jeopardy for crafting a fantastic and wonderfully entertaining demonstration. This technology could have been displayed in an infinite number of less interesting ways. This remarkable mixture of showmanship and science was reminiscent of the great science exhibitions of the nineteenth century.

If you’re a student of innovation, or just want to learn about how important showmanship was to Industrial Age innovators, do a little research about the World’s Columbian Exposition, otherwise known as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla duked it out for the right (and the contract) to light up the fairgrounds with electric lights. Although Tesla and Westinghouse ultimately won, the real winners were science and innovation—for the first time in history pe­ople saw (in a dramatic fashion) how electric light bulbs were going to change our world.

It is in this spirit that we should look at the IBM Jeopardy Challenge. And it is in this spirit that we should applaud Watson. This technology represents American know-how and ingenuity, and clearly demonstrates the power and promise of corporate research and development departments. This was a wonderful demonstration of the nexus of pure scientific research and applied engineering. Watson represents the highest, best purpose of our educational system in America—to relentlessly explore the boundaries of our imaginations and to seek answers to questions we don’t yet know how to ask.

We live in the Information Age, where information is the most valuable currency of our time. If the United States is to remain a superpower, it needs to be a digital superpower and an information superpower.

Equally importantly is the fact that there are more honors students in China and more honors students in India than there are total students in the United States. We need to inspire our children to become world-class experts in the arts and sciences—brilliant young minds will ensure our posterity.

You may think that Watson is a machine and that, because it has a name and a voice, you can anthropomorphize it. Don’t go there. It’s the wrong road. Watson is a humanized; show biz-ized, demonstration of technology that will keep us safe and secure in a cyberwar. It is a clear path to better educational tools, better business tools, and tools that will help us live and work in a digital world.

Kudos to IBM for building a machine that inspires us while it informs, enlightens, and entertains. And to those who think that this was a demonstration aimed at dehumanizing us—shame on you for being fooled by the machine!

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