Remember IBM’s Watson? He’s Still Here.
The celeb computer is branching out from game shows to medical and financial analysis
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But tell that to Ken Jennings, the reigning Jeopardy! champion until Watson came along. In a 2013 Tedx talk, in which he bills himself as “an obsolete know-it-all,” Jennings talks about Watson’s dark side. Jennings warns against outsourcing critical thinking. During the Jeopardy! game, Jennings said he felt like a factory worker in the 1980s, seeing that a robot could do his job. He describes IBM programmers and executives “holding up ‘Go Watson’ signs and applauding like pageant moms every time their little darling got one right.” He warns professions like paralegals and pharmacists they could be next. “Watson and his brethren may be something good or something ominous,” says Jennings. “All I know is how it felt to be the guy put out of work. Here was the one thing I could do well. It felt demoralizing.”
So what is it like to actually meet Watson—that famous, omnivorously knowing computer? Disconcerting. Watson—which in its Jeopardy! days was powered by 10 racks of IBM POWER 750 servers, using 15 terabytes of RAM and 2,880 processor cores (the equivalent of 6,000 high-end desktops performing in concert)—is a physical shadow of its former self. The whole system has been reduced by 75 percent, though amazingly it has gotten 240 percent faster. Watson still has a large physical presence in Yorktown, where it was developed. But the computer is also in the cloud, and can actually run on one server—about the size of four pizza boxes—that can travel to remote locations.
Watson does not do interviews. It really can’t. “Watson is not a conversational system and doesn’t have a sense of self,” explains Chu-Carroll. But do the researchers at IBM sometimes think of Watson as a “him” instead of an “it”? “Oh sure,” says Chu-Carroll, who admits that Watson is “like my third child—a third child I share with 40 other people.”
Kate Stone Lombardi is a journalist and the author of THE MAMA’S BOY MYTH: Why Keeping Our Sons Keeps Them Closer. She rooted for Watson during Jeopardy!