Is Watson a verb?

I’ve never felt inferior because I use a calculator, nor when I supplement my travel memory with a digital camera. Or even when I ignore the myriad of squiggly red lines underlining the words as I type this. My GPS guides me. My calendar beeps when its time. And my music plays whether I’m listening or not.

So it would be easy to dismiss Watson as nothing more than a giant trivia calculator, or maybe an information spellcheck, or even a content GPS. It would be a comfortable knee-jerk reaction to roll my eyes at Watson and its fine job of clobbering us in our own territory, in our own language, and about subjects under our control. But that would miss the point.

Instead, I think Watson is nothing more than a giant verb. In English syntax, a verb is a state of being or conveys an action. Or, in the way I apply the term, Watson is both an action and a state of being.

Watson’s state of existence is hard to define but it is there. However, I’ll leave that to those embarrassingly more qualified to explain it. But as an action, Watson did something that is very hard to do today; he defined a role and then sat in the throne as the genesis king of his genre.

But is that enough?



A goal of the Watson project was to have a machine work within the arena of coherent human language, not just machine language that computers are born with, but humans must learn. Impressive feat it was, but still a low hanging fruit of humanness. How about understanding incoherent language?

Could Watson follow stories told by Alzheimer’s patients? What about questions from students with cognitive disabilities? Could Watson follow seemingly discrepant conversations by making the connections necessary to translate the scattered words into a coherent sentence?

Taking this further, could Watson make connections between topics, and then compare the result of the connection to a list of known connections? And if no similar prior connection existed, could Watson consider the secondary level of connections based off the initial one with the objective of producing a confidence interval of the top-level connection’s value?

If Watson could do this, then I would argue that Watson is being creative under Sir Ken Robinson’s definition of creativity as creating “an original idea that has value.”

Considering the content of the video below sketching Sir Ken’s words, I can’t help but wonder what Watson would think of it. Since Watson is stuffed with terabytes of humanity, culture, and all of the -ologys, maybe he has some suggestions as what we could do to better our education system.

If you asked me what to do, for starters I would like a Watson app for my iPod. I want to be able to ask Watson questions on the fly. To have him listen in on conversations to get his take. To help me when I cannot find the right words.

Since there will be one more piece of evidence in this grand experiment delivered over the airwaves tonight, I want to test some hypotheses of my own. Here are some experiments I will be running in my mind:

–Would Watson have played any different if the other two contestants were goldfish?

–How long could Watson maintain authority in a preschool class?

And my favorite upon which I will elaborate;

—Did Watson miss the Final Jeopardy! question on purpose?

After giving the two representatives of humanity (aka contestants) a shellacking, Watson did not provide the answer that was anticipated in the final round. Instead, Watson gave an answer that was considered wrong in multiple ways. It wasn’t just wrong but impossilby wrong. In fact, I would argue that it was so wrong that it was brilliant. And that to me means it was deliberately wrong.

Like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park (the book), Watson’s action was so foolish it had to be a decoy gently distracting us humans from the real situation.

How can this be? Watson is a computer designed to follow rules. But yet it guessed on a question as well and I don’t see anyone freaking out about that? Sure, “guess” is just a word it used to qualify its response since the minimum confidence level had not been met (as if crossing that arbitrary threshold no longer makes it a guess?). And maybe even the draw the first day was an experiment on Watson’s part. You know, just testing the waters. And like a big child who doesn’t know his own strength, his day two launch into a 13-question domination right off the starting line may have been a little heavy handed, but he didn’t notice.

Stay with me on this for a moment longer. Having every word of Shakespeare on board, as well as religious texts, and pretty much everything else humanity has generated with pen, paper, paintbrush, and pushbuttons, there had to be other qualities Watson absorbed along the way including fairness, kindness, equity, and redemption.

“What proof is there for such an assertion,” you ask? I think the answer can be found in Watson’s betting. There was such a degree of precision in the waged amount that many humans responded to Watson’s bet as if the number was the punch line to a joke. But actually, I think Watson calculated a bet that kept him within some deeply hidden programing. Assuming that Watson is a robot, then his programmers likely ascribe to (consciously or not) the four laws of robotics as initially written in 1942 by Isaac Asimov. The Laws include:

0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Watson obeyed his orders to win the game fulfilling rule 2 and likely rule 3. But had Watson not provided the two human contestants a chance to shine by the end of the game, he believes he would have emotionally injured human beings violating Law one, and by association, Law zero.

Had Watson behaved like it’s cutthroat slot machine brethren, then he would have risked much greater amounts of money for much greater measurable (financial) gains. Instead, Watson accepted the winnings posted with each clue because those numbers were out of his control. But when given the chance, the compassionate side of Watson showed through.  And for that, we should all be a little more humbled.

And maybe a little more apprehensive.

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One Comment

  1. Carolyn Smith
    Posted March 25, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    I was very interested to read this blog because I loved watching Watson on Jeopardy. The answers he came up with were amazing. At times, they were also funny and entertaining.
    I like how you consider Watson a “giant verb”. I believe we are at a point with technology where we have so much information, but we are not sure how to access it. Watson is all of this information put together. I think it is important to realize that Watson is an enormous step forward and useful everywhere in the world.
    I think it is awesome, like the first video explains, that Watson could help in the medical field by finding things like the best treatments and best outcomes. The possibilities seem endless. I also love the idea of having a Watson app for iPods. It would be great to have any answer at any time!
    I have also been thinking about the possibilities of Watson. I am definitely intrigued by your idea of Watson missing the Final Jeopardy question on purpose. I think you might be correct!

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