My Dear Watson

42 years ago, man walked on the moon. People watched, awestruck, one of our own tread softly over truly foreign soil for the first time.

On Monday, for the first time ever, people watched something that doesn’t quite seem possible, and yet it is: A computer participated on Jeopardy.

I have to say: When I first heard about the idea, I was like, so what? We already have Google. If you type a question into Google, you get an answer. This is nothing new.

But you have to watch it. Once you watch, you’ll know it’s something special.

Watson, IBM’s trivia computer, is on the same playing field as the two human competitors. It hears the questions just like they do, tries to make sense of the wordplay and hints, searches through its vast database of knowledge, and finally determines the odds of knowing the right answer. It does all of that in a fraction of a second, and if the odds seem good, it buzzes in with a buzzer, just like the humans.

It’s not connected to the internet. There’s no guy running it. It isn’t fed the questions as raw data–like I said, it hears the questions like anyone else. [Update: Alert reader John A. informed me that Watson actually is fed the raw data at the same time that the contestants hear it. I am completely deflated by this news. Watson, I thought we had something special between us. You will rue this day. Oh, you will rue it.]

It’s historic. And it’s absolutely fascinating to watch. In Tuesday’s episode, Watson really takes off. The other competitors–who are trivia geniuses, mind you, and quite capable of buzzing in on time–are left with nothing to do.

The applications for this computer are vast, but that’s not what I want to see next. What I’d like to see are similar computers made by Google and Microsoft competing against Watson. Who would win? And then I want them all to go on Jerry Springer together and see their reactions when they’re introduced to their illegitimate children. Priceless.

Watson, if I could give you a high five, I would. You impressed me far more than I thought you would.

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