Thoughts On Watson

The frustration aspect made this an interesting run of shows—in a cringeworthy sort of way

Now that it’s over I should say a little something more about Watson, the computer who was sent by Skynet to take over the world beat the humans on Jeopardy! over the last few days.

Now, the things I don’t know about computers are so numerous that they would overload even the most advanced computer, so I can’t comment much on what Watson says about our mechanized future. Noel Murray’s review tries to go into that issue a bit more. Just as a game, though, the effect was lessened for me by the obvious problem that many people have pointed out: Watson’s real advantage was not that it knew the questions, but that it could process the answers instantly and buzz in with a speed that a human can’t match.

That made it a very frustrating show to watch at times. You could see the frustration on Ken and Brad’s faces too. The worst moment for a Jeopardy! contestant has always been the moment when he knows the correct response but someone else buzzes in a split second before him. Here they were dealing not with a human who has mastered exactly when and how to hit the button, but a machine that is hooked up to another machine. What it really says, maybe, is not that computers are smarter than humans but that machines can more easily be connected to other machines.

Well, the frustration aspect certainly made this an interesting run of shows, in a cringe-y sort of way. And Watson became, depending on how you chose to look at it, either a hilarious hero or a truly hateful villain. (With that glowing spinning thing, making him look like he’d ingested some kind of radioactive fluid that lit up his insides, he reminded me of the character “Blight” from Batman Beyond.) There were even some fun moments where it seemed like the humans had the advantage, like the Pinky and the Brain question that namechecked our own Maurice LaMarche. Computers have not yet learned about ’90s TV cartoons, nor about Canadian voice actors.

And speaking of cartoons, now comes the inevitable scandal where it turns out that — like the UNIVAC machine in the old Bugs Bunny cartoon — Watson has only “one working part” and it’s not necessarily IBM-approved.


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