Kirk L. Kroeker "Technology, too, obeys the law of responding, of answering a call at whose origin we are encountering so much static." -- Avital Ronell

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Weighing Watson's Impact

By Kirk L. Kroeker

Does IBM’s Watson represent a distinct breakthrough in machine learning and natural language processing or is the 2,880-core wunderkind merely a solid feat of engineering?

In the history of speculative fiction, from the golden age of science fiction to the present, there are many examples of artificial intelligences engaging their interlocutors in dialogue that exhibits self-awareness, personality, and even empathy. Several fields in computer science, including machine learning and natural language processing, have been steadily approaching the point at which real-world systems will be able to approximate this kind of interaction. IBM’s Watson computer, the latest example in a long series of efforts in this area, made a television appearance earlier this year in a widely promoted human-versus-machine “Jeopardy!” game show contest. To many observers, Watson’s appearance on “Jeopardy!” marked a milestone on the path toward achieving the kind of sophisticated, knowledge-based interaction that has traditionally been relegated to the realm of fiction.

(This article appeared in CACM, vol. 54, no. 7, July 2011, pp. 13-15, and was republished in the book Technologies, Social Media, and Society, McGraw-Hill, 2012.)

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