Watson: Life Imitates Art

Am I the only one that noticed the amazing parallels between the IBM computer on Jeopardy! named Watson and the 1957 movie classic Desk Set?

In the film, Katherine Hepburn’s character named Bunny Watson (coincidence?) runs the reference department at a fictitious television broadcasting company that today would be called NBC. Spencer Tracy’s character Richard Sumner invents a giant computer called EMERAC that can answer reference questions. That’s right – over fifty years ago this monster machine with tape reels and punch cards allegedly had the ability to parse questions into answerable search queries.

Anyway, the other notable events in the film include Bunny Watson exclaiming that the computer gives her the feeling that “maybe, just maybe people are becoming a bit outmoded” as well as the happy ending where Sumner reveals that EMERAC “was never meant to replace you girls, merely to free up your time for more valuable research.”

While Watson performed amazingly well on Jeopardy!, there were still inhuman style glitches. An optimist (or an IBM executive) might say that the implications of this type of technology is to assist humans with memory related tasks. A pessimist might say that reference librarians should be a little nervous.

Here are two interesting articles on the subject. One from the NY Times actually describes what is essentially a reference interview when describing what Watson is capable of. The other is the optimist viewpoint (sort of) and imagines how a resource like Watson could assist overtaxed librarians.

And, if you haven’t seen Desk Set, you really should. It is a Play Now feature on Netflix.


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