Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Personal tools

Commentaries on this Media

Watson is a Woman

by Kevin Hamilton

I followed Watson's debut on Jeopardy about as much as the next guy - the story was unavoidable there for awhile. I read Richard Powers' essay on the pre-paywall version of the New York Times, watched the flashy documentary about Flashy designer Josh Davis, responsible for the avatar seen on screen.

I assumed like others that the AI software was named for Thomas Watson, IBM's founder, or perhaps even for Bell's sidekick. (Though that latter possibility seemed a mismatch.)

Having finally watched the 1954 film Desk Set, starring Hepburn and Tracy, I think I have found Watson's true origins - in Hepburn's character "Bunny" Watson.

In the film (adapted from a play), Watson has just returned from a demonstration of the new IBM Electronic Brain (announced by Thomas J. Watson?), to find that her office at Federal Broadcasting Corporation (a large national television network located in Rockefeller Center) has been occupied by an IBM "methods engineer" named Richard Sumner (played by Spencer Tracy.)

Sumner, who is also an MIT-trained computer engineer, in addition to a management science expert, is engaged in a month-long project of studying Watson's office and staff, the Reference Section of the company. Watson and  the three women she supervises are the human Google for the company - their phones constantly ring with obscure questions - some of which are so familiar to the women that they can answer without effort, others of which require access to files and books.

Sumner's job, known to us and only suspected and feared by the women, is to  design a computer installation for the office. As the company wants some big publicity for this event, Sumner is to keep his mission a secret, leading to greater suspicion on the part of Watson and her team of an impending disaster - would a computer replace their work?

The film is anchored by two significant tests. At the beginning, Watson is tested by Sumner, and determined to be an uncanny computing agent, able to count, tabulate, store and recall with uncanny precision, and using counter-rational or supra-rational algorithms. At the end, the finally installed computer is tested with some initial queries in its position as reference librarian, and fails.

EMERAC fails because of poor context awareness, something that the mere typist assigned to inputting data doesn't know to compensate for. In the end, EMERAC is only successful - and therefore of value to humanity - when operated by Watson herself, who is able to enter in the right information to makeup for the computer's poor contextual knowledge.

So the conclusion takes us to a happy marriage of computer and operator, in which both are necessary to keeping things running smoothly and efficiently, in the context of a growing world of "big data." (The final problem, and the one we see EMERAC answer correctly, is the question "How much does the Earth weigh.")

EMERAC is thus more like Alpha than the contemporary Watson. The new Watson, named for an operator rather than for a computer, is presented to television viewers as an operator of the Jeopardy interface. (The game is, after all, a button-pushing contest.)

In the new Watson, a man has replaced a woman at the switch - and perhaps a new configuration of labor has emerged anyway. Consider the change from the former, in which Sumner engineers and maintains the machine in real time, while Bunny operates it, to the newer version, in which multiple sites across multiple temporalities are responsible for the resulting computing event.

Trebeck is in the role of the telephone from Desk Set, merely passing along the queries originating from elsewhere. The Watson AI, dressed in Davis' cartoony dataviz rather than Charles LeMaire's fashions, fields the questions and answers them as a sort of merged operator and machine. Behind the scenes and long before the event, a small army of researchers programmed the AI and fed it data. In Desk Set, this latter job is also visible, through the work of Bunny's staff, who help deliver all the content for the machine to digest.

So with Jeopardy's Watson stunt, we see primarily two changes - a person where a phone used to be, and a machine where there used to be a machine-plus-operator. The sum total of laborers has remain unchanged, though we are less one woman, and plus one man. This cybernetic brain needs no operator, but does need a user.


The EMERAC demonstrates poor context-awareness.

from Desk Set (1954)
Creator: Lang/Ephron/Marchant
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Posted by Kevin Hamilton