(with apologies to Kent Brockman)
Tonight through Wednesday, IBM’s Watson computer (named for a founder of IBM) will be playing a game. No, thankfully not Global Thermonuclear War, but Jeopardy! Actually this week marks Watson’s television debut (check your local listings). The computer has been playing humans for a few months, with programmers refining Watson’s ability to answer questions.
That may seem simple, but even a search engine doesn’t really answer your question. It just points you to sites that might have the information you want. Watson is built to answer the question you ask, (or in the case of Jeopardy!, ask the question for the proper response). It would function like the ship computer in most of the various Star Trek programs.
The common parallel is between Watson and Deep Blue, the IBM computer that successfully played chess against Garry Kasparov in the late 90s. But the nature of the task facing Watson is more complicated, involving a bit more, well, judgment in sifting information than the strict logic of chess requires (which I think explains some criticism that doubts Watson can be truly effective in specialized circumstances). It might appear a paradox compared with human ability, but computers have an easier time making calculations and retrieving data in a well-defined and well-bounded space compared to the relatively open-ended landscape of a trivia game show like Jeopardy! Watson’s success or failure (it is playing against the contestants with the most winnings and the most consecutive games won in the history of the program) will determine not a change in computing scale, but of computing scope.
What will this mean? Given that a cursory search suggests opinion is divided on whether Watson will win this week, I have no idea. While it will likely be entertaining, and does represent a significant step forward in computing capabilities, I can’t help but think about the supercomputing race that makes waves only when a new computational record is made. It’s nice, and might prompt government action should they lose the number one standing. But what does it mean? What new outcomes do we have because of this? The conversation is rarely about what, to me, seems more important.