What did you find most interesting about seeing Watson being designed?
What I found most interesting was how they operate in a laboratory created entirely around statistics. Every clue Watson answers creates an enormous spreadsheet, and each of the variables can be tweaked, tested, refined, and then tested again in a blind batch, to see whether the adjustment affects a broader sampling. I imagine it's a bit like the continuous process improvement made famous by Japanese auto manufacturers. But at least they're building cars. Watson, it could be argued, really produces nothing but statistics. Its Jeopardy responses are a byproduct.
As technology like this becomes more common, what will happen to the way that we think?
We're already looking more and more to our networks for answers. (Just watch anyone with an iPhone.) This trend is bound to accelerate as more sophisticated technologies, like Watson's, become available. As this happens, I think we'll start to view general knowledge as a lower commodity. To succeed in the knowledge economy, people increasingly will have to put knowledge to work, coming up with original ideas. Those who fail in this are likely to be displaced by machines.
But this isn't just an economic issue. There's also the question of what we need and want in our heads to have happier and more fulfilling lives. After all, a person who outsources knowledge-work to the network might end up struggling to carry on interesting conversations, or to make friends. We shouldn't forget that Watson and its ilk are just powerful tools--and that we're the ones with brains.
Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe, where he edits the Sunday Ideas section. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com