Instrumented Interconnecteds Intelligent

By Steve Hamm

At IBM, Watson seems to be everywhere these days. The cognitive computer that beat two grand champions on the TV quiz show, Jeopardy!, has a team working on enhancements in IBM Research; software programmers developing services for businesses and whole industries; programming and ideation contests in universities; two books about it (Final Jeopardy! and Smart Machines); and, now, an Off-Broadway play.

watson play 1That’s right, Playwrights Horizons is presenting The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, by playwright Madeleine George—which opened on Nov. 15 and will continue  through Dec. 29. It’s an exploration of the relationships between people and the people and machines we depend on. The play draws on parallels between IBM’s Watson, the character Dr. Watson of Sherlock Holmes fame and the Watson who Alexander Graham Bell called in the first-ever telephone conversation. At times funny and other times emotionally wrenching, the play examines our mixed feelings about being helped by others. George is featured here.

watson play 2After the Dec. 4 performance, George spoke on a panel that featured three of the researchers at IBM who invented our Watson and who are now adding capabilities aimed at making Watson a transformational technology for society, business and individuals. They’re Eric Brown, the Watson project leader; Jennifer Chu-Carroll, who manages the knowledge structures team; and Mike Barborak, who manages the natural language engineering team. The panel was moderated by Bill Pulleyblank, a former IBMer who is now a professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

The IBMers were thrilled to see their creation embodied on stage, but they pressed the point that Watson and other cognitive computing technologies are being developed to help people think rather than copy or replace them. “It’s an assistant that’s allowing us to do things we couldn’t do before,” said Barborak. Chu-Carroll pointed out that computers don’t think the way humans do. She recalled an incident early in the Watson training period when the machine was asked who was the first woman in space. The machine’s answer: the comic strip character Wonder Woman. “After Watson learned more and didn’t make mistakes like that anymore, we were kind of sad,” she joked.

George said she enjoyed interacting with the researchers as she developed the play, topped off with a visit to the IBM Research lab in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., where the original Watson computer resides. They stood inside an area within a datacenter where Watson’s 96 powerful servers were stacked on two parallel metal racks.  “It wasn’t just like meeting a celebrity,” she said. “We were standing inside this celebrity’s hot, roaring brain.”

Here’s a video about the visit:

YouTube Preview Image

If you want to learn more about the new era of computing, read the new book, Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing, by IBM Research Dir. John Kelly.


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