Blogs > Jim Collins' Editor's Notebook

Jim Collins is editor emeritus of The News-Herald and also serves as executive in residence at Lakeland Community College. His popular weekly column appears each Sunday in Comment in The News-Herald.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Couldn’t we all use one of IBM’s creations

When gadgets are introduced to the public, they carry impossibly high price tags.

This is especially true of anything electronic.

Remember when CDs first came out? They were a breakthrough in sound reproduction. The clarity of listening to a good jazz tune on a CD was like sitting in the middle of the trumpet section, with Maynard Ferguson in the chair next to you.

Boy, how I wanted a CD player. But the first models I saw on the market cost $1,600. I was not at home in that range.

But everything that’s brand new in electronics quickly comes down dramatically in price. All you have to do is wait.

That is true of TVs (both color and black and white), radios, toasters, vacuum cleaners — everything you plug into the wall or stuff with batteries.

I have so many gadgets run by AA batteries that I buy them two dozen at a time. If I put new batteries in the thermostat, the whirling widget that cleans the walls in my shower stall, the indoor-outdoor thermostat and a few of the flashlights lying about the house, I can go through the entire two dozen batteries in a matter of minutes.

And we do have flashlights everywhere. The lady of the house lives in fear of a power outage. If that should ever happen, she would want a flashlight within easy reach. So we live surrounded by flashlights.
But I digress.

As much as I wanted a CD player, I didn’t want to fork over $1,600 for one. But it wasn’t long before they came down to $1,200. Next time I looked, they were $800.

They kept getting progressively cheaper. Finally, I think I bought a boom box for around $49 and it had a tape deck, CD player and AM/FM radio.

No one would ever have to pay $1,600 for a CD player again. And that is a good thing.

For many years, every car I owned had a “free” CD player, if you want to look at it that way. CD players now are everywhere.

Well, almost everywhere. They aren’t in the fruit cellar or the pantry. But you know what I mean. I do have one in the living room, and it cost a small fortune.

It is also a radio, but it is a Bose radio, and if you know anything about sound quality you know that the sounds emitted by a Bose are unequaled.

CD players are the paradigmatic example of electronic things coming down dramatically in price.
And that brings me to my point — finally.

In our house we usually have dinner around 7 p.m. That is, the human beings in our house have dinner around 7. The dogs have dinner about an hour earlier. The cats have no particular feeding time.

Their food bowls are always full and they can eat whenever they wish, which is probably why they are getting fat.

We don’t dare leave extra amounts of dog food sitting around, however. They would devour everything in sight and would never, literally never, stop eating.

But we adults eat around 7, and about the time we are finishing it is time for “Jeopardy” to come on. We miss it once in a while, but we probably see “Jeopardy” four times a week.
Now I am really getting to the point.

Not long ago the show featured a contestant named Watson. Watson is a computer that competed against the two best-known “Jeopardy” winners of all time – Ken Jennings, who won an incredible 74 times in a row, and Brad Ritter, the all-time money winner on the show, who took home millions.

Well, Watson made mince meat of the two former champs. If it had been a boxing match they would have stopped it.

At the end of the single and double Jeopardy, Watson had earned $77,147, Jennings won $24,000 and Ritter $21,600.

Do you see what I am getting at?

Watson, like a CD player, is a gadget. And we all know how dramatically CD players came down in price. If they can do it with CD players, they can do it with Watson — perhaps to the point where we could all have one.

How handy that would be? No more encyclopedias. No more dictionaries. No more Googling. Ninety percent of the Internet would be a thing of the past. We would seek all of our answers from Watson.

Now, creating Watson was a bit of a project. It took 25 IBM scientists four years to create their pet robot that made Jennings and Ritter look like confused kids.

Well, not quite. The Final Jeopardy question was answered correctly by both Jennings and Ritter — and me also, as a matter of fact. But Watson whiffed on it.

The question referred to a city whose largest airport was named for a World War II hero and its second largest for a World War battle.

“Chicago,” I said. Both Jennings and Ritter wrote down “Chicago.”

For some reason unknown to me, Jennings, Ritter or Alex Trebec,  Watson wrote, “ What is Toronto?????”

I didn’t know computers or robots resorted to wild guesses, followed by question marks.

So on that question, the former Kings of Jeopardy made Watson look a bit addlepated.

I also thought Watson looked a little dopey on the Double Jeopardy questions he answered — not by his replies but by the amounts he wagered.

They were never in even thousands of dollars, or even hundreds, but totally “out of the blue” amounts — odd dollars that didn’t relate to anything.

There remains work to be done on machines, of course.

It has been demonstrated they can come up with answers to difficult questions. And they can play chess.

They can probably play bridge. And maybe even something really difficult, like Monopoly or Old Maid. But one thing they cannot do is carry on a conversation.

I suppose that is coming next. Nothing like asking a computer how he likes the weather.

If Watson replied, “Compared to what?” I think I’d be tempted to pour sand into his gear box.

But since the first generation of Watson has come along, can the next generation be far behind?

I’d love to go to a ball game with Watson and chat with him on the hitting and fielding of the Indians.
After he comes down in price to about $49, of course.


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