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Produce a legion of 'Watsons' Print E-mail
By Bill Webb   
Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The long-running TV game show Jeopardy! scored big, thanks to a brainy contestant operating on computer chips and software.

For three consecutive shows, two previous champions on the show pitted their human brains against "Watson," a computer. Watson was designed to excel in such settings. He, or rather "it," was created to answer questions posed in natural language with speed, accuracy and confidence - like its human competitors, only better.

The competitors were hardly shabby. Ken Jennings broke the record for 74 consecutive Jeopardy! wins back in 2004-2005, while Brad Rutter won a cumulative $3.2 million.

Not surprisingly, media hype helped host Alex Trebek's show score second in viewer ratings during its time slot. The computer didn't disappoint, effectively trouncing Jennings and Rutter as it "understood" the questions and retrieved answer after answer.

Watson "walked" away with the $1 million top prize. Well, IBM did, giving half to World Community Grid, a volunteer computer network committed to humanitarian scientific work, and the other half to World Vision, a relief and development organization especially popular among religious groups and supported by Trebek.

Jennings finished second and won $300,000; he planned to give $150,000 to VillageReach, an organization committed to improving healthcare in the developing world. Rutter received $200,000 for finishing third, promising to give half to the Lancaster County Community Foundation in Pennsylvania.

While neither of the humans was able to defeat the computer, the competition was a win-win for the human race. Obviously, the computer represented years and years of human endeavor by some of the brightest people on the planet. A bunch of them.

Despite his Jeopardy! success, Watson's real value is not as an uber brainiac game show contestant. He and his race are tools that enable fast retrieval and processing of information with the capability of helping humans more quickly and effectively solve many of the world's nagging problems.

The technology's capacity for accomplishing good is limited by people, as is its ability to function in destructive ways.

I am from a generation forbidden to have a calculator in math class. Anyone found to have one of those then-sophisticated devises in her possession in class was treated as a cheat. Today, I suppose, some form of calculator -- perhaps loaded on a laptop computer -- is required of math students.

That being said, I am glad we have the Watsons of our world. Life's challenges are complex and they are big. If man-made brains like Watson can help us progress faster in medical breakthroughs, food production and distribution, and poverty eradication, I say produce legions of Watsons.

They are only limited by the passion and good will of their creators.

 
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