Innovation Blog

Hal, the 2001 Computer, as “Watson”:  Sane, Smart – and Creative?

By Shlomo Maital


 Jennings, “Watson” and Rutter, 

 playing Jeopardy

Remember Hal, the psychotic computer in the movie “2001”, inspired by sci-fi writer Arthur Clarke and directed by Stanley Kubrick, in 1968?  Well, Hal’s back, 43 years later. He has a new name:  “Watson”.  And he’s not only sane, he’s very very smart, very fast… but, not yet, creative.  *

    In “2001”, Hal the computer, on a space ship, has a nervous breakdown.  Early drafts of the script show it occurred because Hal was order to withhold information from the astronauts about the true purpose of their mission. Apparently, it’s tough for computers to lie.

   “Watson” is an IBM computer named after IBM founder Thomas Watson and designed to play the TV game “Jeopardy”. In Jeopardy, three contestants are given ‘answers’ (“This 50th American state is the birthplace of the current President”), and asked to give the appropriate ‘questions’ (“Who is Barack Obama?”).  First to press a buzzer gets to answer; if the answer is right, the contestant wins money. The one who wins the most total money, wins the game and returns the next time.    The star of Jeopardy is named Ken Jennings, whom won 74 games in a row, and Brad Rutter, another act.  At the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights,  the computer “Watson” went head-to-head with Jennings and Rutter.  “Watson” won hands down.   Watson beat its opponents to the buzzer, in the second round, 24 times out of 30, and got most of the answers right.

    This is not a frivolous exercise. It cost IBM a lot of money. IBM will use the publicity to leverage new products, including a Watson-like physician’s assistant, where doctors would query it just like with Jeopardy.  This, in turn, will change the nature of medical education. “The power of Watson-like tools will cause us to reconsider what it is we want students to do,” said Dr. H. Chase, a clinical medicine professor. No longer will memory skills be paramount. 

    The one thing neither Hal nor Watson (nor IBM’s Big Blue chess-playing computer that defeated world champion Gary Kasparov) could do, is to be innovative and creative, coming up with novel ideas that link seemingly unrelated things.  In Jeopardy, wherever there was ambiguity in the question, Watson stumbled.  Only the human brain has this capability called ‘imagination’, the ability to see not what is, but what could be.  Indeed, as computers take over more and more memory and cognition functions, the one thing computers cannot do will become immensely valuable to those possessing it – the capability to dream. 

* see: John Markoff, “Artificial intelligence gets lift on TV quiz”, IHT, Feb 18, 2011, p. 21.