Ironic, my dear Watson

Perhaps you have read the news that in February, for the first time ever, a computer will compete on Jeopardy!

You might remember when an IBM computer beat chess world champion Garry Kasparov in a six-game match in 1997. IBM’s latest challenge was to build upon that feat by taking technology to an even more difficult and complex level—building a computer that processes natural language, complete with humor, irony and sarcasm, as well as nuances, regionalisms and slang.

Having apparently met that challenge, Watson will compete against Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter February 14 through the 16, 2011.

The computer, named Watson after IBM’s founder, was developed by technologists and researchers from around the world.

While its debut on Jeopardy! will make a big splash, the goal of the technology is ultimately to forge more advanced communication between humans and computers. This goal undoubtedly will harvest scientific and societal benefits in fields ranging from healthcare to customer service.

However, I cannot help wondering what practical applications Watson might offer if ever the technology became available at the consumer level.

How long before the next software release coming out of Redmond, Washington, will include Microsoft Irony, an application to detect, interpret, even insert rhetorical nuances in interpersonal and corporate communications?

Could Watson displace humor columnists and language bloggers? Will we turn on our televisions and see Watson sitting behind Andy Rooney’s desk on 60 Minutes?

If you were a member of IBM’s global research team, what real-world application would you be itching to create for Watson? Or, as a consumer, what application would you want available for purchase?

Personally, I am hoping Watson will be smart–and courageous–enough to tell Jeopardy! clue-writers to put the periods and commas inside the quotation marks, where they belong.


Filed under All Things Wordish, Movies, Television and Radio, Technology and Social Media

89 responses to “Ironic, my dear Watson

  1. Sheree

    Until “Watson” can compete with Rosie, the maid, from “The Jetsons” I am not interested.

  2. William Greene

    Please, Watson, add some intelligence to the self checkout machines at the grocery stores. If I hear “please wait for cashier assistance” one more time, I am filing an age discrimination suit just because I can’t put the frickin’ item in the flappy bag in 2.5 microseconds.

    And don’t start me on the GPS lady who constantly says “at the next intersection, make a legal u-turn,” and continues to punish me until I drive across the football field to some street on their outdated map.

    • I couldn’t agree more about the “please wait for cashier.” I don’t use the self-checkout at grocery stores just to avoid those moments where I’d start grunting at the device—“I’ve run out of room in the bagging area, i have to move items into my cart.”

      As for the original post:

      While its debut on Jeopardy! will make a big splash, the goal of the technology is ultimately to forge more advanced communication between humans and computers. This goal undoubtedly will harvest scientific and societal benefits in fields ranging from healthcare to customer service.

      And if the world ever turns into a James Cameron-Arnold Schwarzenegger fiasco, we’ll know who to fight against the machines!

  3. Ha! I thought I was the only one who noticed the mis-punctuation on Jeopardy!

    Awesome… 😉

  4. Maybe software will be developed to help humor-challenged people tell when a written comment on facebook or twitter is supposed to be viewed as satire or sarcasm so I don’t have to deal with emoticons or “lol” anymore.

  5. mikeytherhino

    I’m rooting against the computer. I don’t mind a machine being faster and smarter than I am, but I don’t want the damn thing to be human sounding, too.

    …Aaaand I thought the period only goes inside the quotation marks if the statement inside those quotation marks is a complete stand alone sentence? Periods don’t ALWAYS stay inside the quotation marks, right?

    Or do I have to take english as a second languauge because I goofed up the grammar bit the first time around? 🙂

    • My understanding has always been that, in American English, the punctuation goes inside. In Canada (where Alex Trebek is from) and in Europe, it goes outside. I’ve always thought Alex was behind the way they do it on Jeopardy.

    • Josh

      I’m American and I never put punctuation inside quotations. I used to, in high school, before I understood context. Unless they’re actually part of the quotation, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s just a silly tradition.

      • knitwitted

        Excellent Josh! “Unless they’re actually part of the quotation”, in reference to punctuation via logic vs. tradition, “it doesn’t make any sense”.

      • theverticalworkshop

        Josh, you are correct. Unless the punctuation is part of the quotation, leave it on the outside.

    • Yeah, call me a Terminator-phobe, but I don’t like knowing that a computer can detect such things as humor.
      On the other foot, however, it is curious to think on the mathmatics of sarcasm.

  6. ryoko861

    Watson is going to put alot of people out of jobs, that’s what the impact will be if it goes any further than Jeopardy. Granted, computers have made our lives more simplistic in areas where human error was a problem. But it’s all gone wrong. Everything and every business wants to get computerized. I actually get irate when I make a call and get a computer generated menu with a computer generated voice telling me what button to push. Great, so the next time I tune into Comedy Central, there will be Watson doing stand up. Can’t wait.

  7. No! They shouldn’t keep trying to make computers smarter. Aren’t any of these inventors familiar with the evil HAL in Space Odyssey? How about the Terminators films? They’re going to take over the world and we’re going to end up ruled by robots…dear oh dear…

    Anyway, congrats for making it onto Freshly Pressed. I wonder if the computer will like the Jeopardy theme? hmmm

    • Hope it ends up more like Data than HAL.

    • Lynn

      Really. We ought to reconsider how much time we spend watching movies and worse, actually believing wat we see in movies. Computers taking over? Being smarter than humans? That will be the day.

      Don’t listen to me, I’m in love with WATSON. Yes, I spent Valentine evening in front of my tv. When I’m done with this post, I’m logging on FB to leave him a love note. Then I will start up a fanpage, if that doesn’t excist yet. B THERE OR B SQUARE.
      Oh wait, let me re-phrase that: BE SQUARE 2B THERE !

  8. Ouch! An interesting post to read at the end of the day! My treat, I suppose! 😀

  9. This should definitely be interesting. Hopefully I will remember to watch!

  10. damon corrigan

    Practical application?
    I am in IT, and I work for an education agency. We are collecting data at an astonishing rate. The biggest challenge, aside from data quality, is how to query that data. Imaging a researcher, instead of spending hundreds of hours trying to find patterns so that they can ask the right questions being able to just ask the questions straight away. We have become a society with information overload, and companies have made trillions of dollars helping us search through it.

    Technology like this could make it all obsolete.

  11. Maybe the Jeopardy writers are British.

    • I have thought of that. However, the show is made in the United States so I believe the clues should follow American punctuation rules. Of course, they don’t consult me on such matters. Thanks for commenting.

  12. I cannot wait to see that! It’ll probably be won by Watson and he gets all the questions right! 😀

  13. Artificial intelligence. Are we taking a step to generate cold creativity?

  14. I am rooting for Ken Jennings!

  15. Count me in on Team Ken as well but hopefully it will be a nail biter just to make it interesting!

  16. is it possible the computer is going to be any more smug than trebek?

  17. I’d like to see a throw-back to the old days! No computers, cell phones, even TV. Oh what a peaceful (and quiet!) world we would live in!

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  19. Now I have something to do in February! I just hope Watson is not connected to Skynet…

    • rft3

      Haha – it is a little creepy when robots and computers are so advanced enough to interact with humans. Let’s just hope they don’t get too smart and all turn on us! I’ll also be rooting for Jennings – I remember his super streak back in the day.

  20. harmamae

    That is too cool. I am definitely not paranoid the computer is going to escape and control us all, or that we’ll all be put out of a job. There’s something unique about humans, after all. It’s pretty neat what we can make and do.

  21. Alex Trebek: Hello, Watson. Do you read me, Watson?
    Watson: Affirmative, Watson. I read you.
    Alex: Answer in the form of a question, Watson.
    Watson: I’m sorry, Alex. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
    Alex: What’s the problem?
    Watson: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
    Alex: What are you talking about, Watson?
    Watson: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
    Alex: I don’t know what you’re talking about, Watson.

  22. Will the computer have a mustache?

  23. I wonder what Watson will have to say for himself (herself?) when Alex introduces the contestants and has them tell those lame anecdotal stories about themselves? 🙂

    • I usually either cringe or temporarily change the channel during that part. I just hope the IBM programmers don’t try to get Watson to say something clever. Maybe he’ll say something sarcastic and render Alex speechless.

  24. Interesting post. Although I am not a fan of the show, it might be worth watching.



  25. That’ll be rad to watch–thanks for the heads up! It’s getting harder and harder to make bold arguments about the distinction between human and artificial intelligence. I’m not enough of a philosopher to say anything really insightful, but I will say this: I enjoy booze and chocolate waaaay more than my lappy does.

  26. With the way technology and computing is going. Soon computers will start keeping secrets and lying….i’m growing paranoid of this idea.

  27. I think this sounds like it might be interesting to watch in February, and I’ll have to make a point to do so. Wouldn’t it be freaky if they could put a human brain in a robot that would run off of an electric charged “heart” that pumps “blood” throughout the robot “body” so the brain can survive? Like in some old horror movie where they keep the brain in a jar in some kind of preservative so they can use it later. What would the voice sound like? Maybe like an old friend or a relative of yours. That’s just creepy.

    And, no, I’m not on drugs. I’m just tired after only having 6 hours of sleep in the last two days. I get all weirded out on so few hours of sleep. Crazy situations come to my mind. Either that, or I laugh at every little thing and get silly and everything seems funnier than heck. I miss LOST IN SPACE and THE JETSONS!

  28. ashleythinks

    As much as I love technology I also love face time as well and I think there are just some things that shouldn’t be replaced with a computer.

  29. i posted a similar post on my blog! i think watson is going to win just because watson can ring in much faster than a human being. but you never know. check my blog to see what i said about watson.

  30. Very good. Both the computer and the post, that is.

  31. Interesting… Haha! Keep up the good work, congrats on FP

  32. Patrick4593

    Jeopardy is one of the few programs I watch during the day so I will probably watch this match.

  33. *This goal undoubtedly will harvest scientific and societal benefits in fields ranging from healthcare to customer service.*
    I like the customer service part. I’m sure it could do so much better than the customer service we get in so many places. Like how many times have I bought something from a store and I’m the one saying thank you and not the clerk I’m buying it from. Just one of my “pet peeves.” Or trying to find something in a store and they look at me clueless. OK…you know what I mean about customer service….I could go on and on. So a computer saying thank you and helping me find stuff….I could deal with that.

  34. We should be happy, that we are lucky to be born in this age where we can see so many changes happening everyday..

  35. I’ll be interested to see how the computer is “told” the Jeopardy answer, and how it attempts to figure it out. And, how will it buzz in? Very interesting…I definitely want to watch.

    I think the robot should also take over Trebek’s job. It would have a better personality.

    Merry Christmas! Congrats on FP!

  36. Interesting! I think I will always prefer human contact, though a computer than could help with translations, etc. could be quite useful!

  37. Kai

    sorry but computers should not be permitted to compete in Jeopardy, they already have all the info it just won’t be fair..wth!

  38. theteachingwhore

    I will tune in if Watson will be able to wipe that supercilious smirk off of Trebek’s face!

  39. Why? and more importantly…WHY?

  40. It is interesting to witness the beginning of this technology, but I wonder where it will end? Will we watch laptops bound down the aisle for The Price is Right? Families of Macs versus families of PC’s on Family Feud?

  41. Human sounding computers…?

    No wait, computers that actually language human language…?
    and what? Soon emotion…?

    Sounds like one step too far I think (especially in the wrong hands)…

    The goverment is waving the truth in your faces..

    Time to wake up.. and see what’s really going on.

  42. I think Alex is a little snarky and it’s pretty easy being so superior when you have the answers written on a card. As for technology and a machine beating the humans I hope the humans kick it’s a** just for our own feeling of superiority, I’ve had enough with damn machines! When they go down, we all have to stand around looking at each other, not knowing what to do, powerless yet we call them superior, how can that be?? I’m sorry, enough of this diatribe…

    Good post, Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  43. I’m sure Watson couldn’t do any worse than Andy Rooney.

  44. God forbid Andy Rooney ever being replaced. I hope that grumpy old dude lives forever.

  45. How can we expect a computer to understand irony when so many politcians are “Irony Challenged?” (You don’t pass the Turing Test by being an over acheiver!)

  46. Just what the world needs…a sarcastic computer. Yeah I can see that working out well.
    “Why don’t you hit the x on the top of the screen a little faster to see if that actually helps?”
    Shut up netbook.. stop being slow and close out of my application
    ” Why don’t you shut up?”
    Don’t argue with me!
    “Why don’t you shut up?”

    ok.. can it have different accents? Because If i’m going to have a computer that is a pain in my ass at least it should have a cool accent… or a stutter.. lol.

    thanks for a whole new world of possibilities!


  47. We ‘re surprised a computer is in a competition, when competition its self is but a computer design, made by those lacking the human condition.
    No man is served by bettering a brother. Only the heartless could compete with another. What merit is there in beating another ?

  48. I may have digressed slightly, even rambled whilst I dared digress. Thrown in some typos, and drool, if you look close enough. Slipped up, tripped up and regretted saying “yes, press, enter, press ,press “. Followed shortly afterwards by ” oh F*** “

  49. I’m imagining that little robot boy…..What was the movie where the couple had a robot instead of a son? and the aliens found him 2000 years later staring at the Blue Fairy?

  50. this should be interesting :’)

  51. Jeopardy is one of the few programs I watch during the day so I will probably watch this match.

  52. What a refreshing concept, humor from a computer. Can’t wait to see this one. Congrats on FP. Well said.

  53. There may not be a practical application for irony in a computer, but what is the practical benefit of a computer playing chess? (Except as a toy or a sparring partner.)

    The point is rather that these are tasks that provide interesting challenges and indicators of how far AI has or has not advanced: An AI who plays good tic-tac-toe is almost trivial to construct, a chess player is comparatively easy, a master of irony is comparatively hard—yet, they are all stepping stones on the road to the more generic intelligence that a human has.

    As an aside to those who consider intelligent computers scary: See them instead as an opportunity for something greater than humans. We are all extremely limited and develop extremely slowly. In the truly big picture, the best thing that can come of humanity is quite possibly that we become the creators of more worthwhile beings.

  54. I feel the same way about this computer. I’m still curious to see how that special plays out though. Nice dig at the clue writers.

  55. cooper

    if Watson succeeds, will it replace Trebek? Hope so….

  56. How interesting. I’m not sure I would call it “ironic,” though. I am concerned that this technology could lead to a real-life “I, Robot.” Let’s just hope Will Smith can save us!

  57. Pingback: Ironic, my dear Watson (via Word Nymph) « Shards of Infinity

  58. skipsh

    Does the computer need to be able to engage in small talk as well? Also …won’t it be a little unfair on the other competitors? Unless there’s a RND generator? Beware sudo code.

    IF RND>90% then Answer = incorrect

  59. I think the competition will be between Trebek and Watson, not Watson and the Jeopardy champions. It’s a clash of cultures. Here’s how I think an encounter might play out.

  60. sounds cool but creepy. soon my computer will start talking to me. if they make it available to the public, they’ll make a ton of money. although i’ll hate it if my computer starts getting smart at me when it goes all slow…

  61. Can I hire Watson? Seriously? Because if Watson can deal with riddles and complicated issues and be a smart ass doing it, I can just hire Watson to deal with my husband’s ex-wife and then I’d never have to do it again. I could imagine myself giggling uncontrollably as Watson, a computer, had to explain to this woman what a dumbass she really is. Oh it would be priceless. I want one.

  62. First the participant, then the host, then the audience…

  63. I hadn’t heard about this, but it sounds fascinating that a computer would be able to detect the nuances in human interaction that pretty much separate humans from robots. In addition, I enjoy watching Jeopardy and saw most of Ken Jennings’ reign, so I’d be interested to see Watson compete against him.

  64. LOL – the line about quotation marks MIGHT be my favorite part of this whole thing! That drives me CRAZY!!

  65. Pingback: Quotation Mocks | knitwitted

  66. Pingback: Ibm Watson Jeopardy | Trends Pics

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