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That glassy stare

An impressive performance by Watson still comes up short

Issue: "The rise of localism," March 12, 2011

There was a lot of hoopla a couple of weeks ago, and perhaps deservedly so, when a battery of IBM computers took on two of the best players the televised game show Jeopardy! has ever featured, and beat them both soundly.

"They're very justifiably proud of what they've done," said Brad Rutter, biggest all-time money winner on Jeopardy! "I would have thought technology like this was years away. But it's here now. I have the bruised ego to prove it."

It was a gracious response to a lopsided contest. Rutter was on his own-having to hear, interpret, analyze, and respond in fractions of a second. The IBM computer, on the other hand, going by the name of Watson, enjoyed a backup team of 19 mega-servers, more than 30 engineers, analysts, programmers, and specialists-as well as a whole corporate army of computer foot soldiers. Although none of them were technically connected to the actual game, an old-fashioned IBM rooting section was on hand to cheer when Watson spit out a correct answer.

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And all that's not to mention the fact that Watson himself (most of his designers call him "he") is very much the product of human minds. Watson is, for sure, intellectually agile. But Watson wasn't designed by a computer.

OK. Enough excuses. A lot of us were cheering for Rutter and Ken Jennings, the runner-up all-time money winner on Jeopardy! But Rutter and Jennings lost. In the process, we're told, we've entered a new era of artificial intelligence. "Watson is transformative," said one of IBM's top engineers. "We don't even know yet what it might become."

Let's accept that. At the same time, let's keep in mind those abilities that Watson not only hasn't mastered, but hasn't really even taken on. For example, acting all by himself, Watson wouldn't be very good at sorting through the possibilities and picking the next Republican candidate for president of the United States. Watson wouldn't even be so hot at telling you how the current governor of Wisconsin is doing in carrying out his assignments.

As a matter of fact, Watson stumbled now and then just trying to merge bits of unlikely data. But that was a rarity. And it was heartening-both in Watson's successes and his failures-to witness the very human responses of his IBM cheerleaders. Again and again, they raised their arms in elation; and then they wept openly. All these technocrats were reminding you that they're not altogether governed by technology after all.

The bottom line is that Watson is still much better at handling data than he is in exercising wisdom. That will probably also be true for the next two or three generations of Watson's descendants. In one fairly limited sense, they'll seem to be getting smarter and smarter. They'll do all sorts of technological tricks-including split-second answering of multiple-choice questions even if there are hundreds of thousands of choices. And yes, there will be some application of such skills to the most profound needs of society.

But not much. The really urgent questions of the day call not for some super-quick or superficial computer calculation, but for an empathy-bathed exercise of Godly wisdom. I doubt if President Obama sat last month asking a bank of computers just how closely he should identify with Hosni Mubarak. Congress' problem with the deficit is not in calculating how big it is, but where the discipline and willpower might be to do something concrete about it. No lack of data; big shortage of wisdom.

Wouldn't you love to ask Watson to ponder the assertion of Proverbs, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom"? Might you get something like an intelligent answer-or maybe just a glassy stare?
Email Joel Belz

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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