16
Feb
11

“It’s elementary my dear Watson.”

And with those 5 short words I have conjured up the image of Sherlock Holmes; the London detective preparing to explain his unshakable logic to his friend and chronicler Dr. Watson.  Perhaps you can even imagine him standing there with pipe in hand.  Perhaps you think of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who created and wrote the stories of Sherlock Holmes and his companion.  Perhaps you are even taken back to a time when you read these stories and shared in their exploits.  All with 5 little words.

Watson Avatar

When I heard of the new IBM computer system taking on the best and brightest of Jeopardy fame in the game of Jeopardy itself, I thought of all these things.  After all the computer is named Watson.  The title phrase instantly jumped to mind and brought all the associated imagery and knowledge.  In parallel I thought of Watson and Crick who proposed the double helix structure of DNA; a thought that brings with it a whole different collection of thoughts and feelings.  The beauty of IBM’s Watson is that this is what it is capable of.  It can compete in the arena of Jeopardy, a battlefield of human language rife with our colloquialisms and puns, and stand toe to toe with humans.  If you haven’t heard of Watson yet a google search for “IBM Watson” will flood you with information.  Searching YouTube will provide you many videos of Watson taking on the humans and winning (I would link to those here but I won’t be surprised to see those videos removed for copyrights later and I’d like to avoid dead links in the blog).  It is easy to be impressed by Watson and while I could easily “geek out” over how cool this is the internet is already full of blogs doing just that.  Instead I’d like to explore what this means about us…humans.

Our technology has, for no short time now, been a huge portion of many manufacturing processes.  It it an integral part of our lives and is likely to only continue to become more and more ingrained in us and in society.  We have rovers on OTHER WORLDS examining rocks and sending us data.  We have spacecraft that autonomously repoint themselves to catch rare observing targets.  Obviously the list goes on but how amazing is it that the things that seem the simplest to us are so difficult for computers capable of the aforementioned tasks?!  One simple phrase to us requires an exceptionally complex machine to go search dictionaries, encyclopedias, Wikipedia, etc. to develop a list of likely responses.  All of which lack the depth and imagery associated.  What is even more impressive is that all the Sherlock Holmes and DNA references started with only 1 word.  Watson.

I simply find it fascinating that it takes a computer system filling a server room to try and find the things that occur naturally in the space between your ears.  We can design computers to calculate the most complicated mathematical formulae either explicitly or numerically.  We can write programs (if we are clever enough) to calculate some of the most difficult processes occurring in nature, but delving into the realm of human biology presents a problem so profound that computers can’t seem to overcome them (though Watson is an impressive advancement).

I suppose this post doesn’t have a coherent message or purpose other than that this technological advancement forces me to pause and consider the extraordinary computer that exists inside our own heads.  How with a single cue we can sort though a life’s worth of information, conversations, experiences, the hidden meanings, the connotations, tiny minutia and nuances, pop culture references, cultural cues, and bad jokes to arrive at a fictional London based detective created by a Scottish author.  All with an apparent zero effort on our part.  As Watson is helping to remind us though, the process is anything but elementary.

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