Man and Machines

March 2011

I watched with fascination the Jeopardy! match last month between IBM’s “Watson” and two Jeopardy champions Ken and Brad. Full disclosure: my beau is an IBM alumnus and so tuning in to the three-night slugfest was not optional in our household. Yet, despite my almost allergic reaction to all things related to technology, I was on the edge of my seat. I felt I was a witness to an historic moment in the unfolding relationship between man and technology.

The drama, suspense, and cliff-hanger moments completely captivated me, as man versus machine went toe to toe. But hey, wait a minute…Watson doesn’t have toes. Or ears, or a mouth. But the most obvious human trait Watson is missing is feelings and emotions. Watson can parse questions, gather evidence for its hypotheses, and is unbelievably fast. It (sorry, IBM, I cannot refer to Watson as “he” as some of the creation team does so fondly…perhaps if Watson were a 1953 Chevy I might be able to make that leap) can take language with nuances of meaning, metaphors, puns, and even veiled allusions, and make meaning and sense from the words. It edges tantalizingly close to grasping “natural language,” which IBM calls the “heart of human intelligence.” But Watson has no heart.

Mind you, I say this with the utmost respect and even awe for what the geniuses at IBM have built. The years they have invested in creating Watson, and the challenges they have overcome, are a testament to man’s intellectual capacities and creativity. In the process, the research and development teams have revealed a deeper understanding of our own intelligence. They are also justifiably proud of their work, and Watson’s impressive thumping of the two chagrinned champions. It is exciting to think of how Watson and his its progeny can impact science, finance, healthcare, and myriad other industries. The Jeopardy game was merely a glimpse of the amazing Watson’s powers. 

As we cross the threshold into a world where computers assume a larger role in doing the heavy-lifting thinking, I believe it is even more important to recognize the importance of what we humans bring to the table: feelings such as compassion, curiosity, and love; depth of understanding and connection; and the unique advantage that we have by virtue of our own humanity. Please let me know if I can help you explore these unique gifts and how they can impact you and your work.

Warm regards,

Sharon Keys Seal

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