Humans vs Watson: One of the most frustrating experiences produced by the winter from hell is dealing with the airlines’ automated answer systems. Your flight has been cancelled & every second counts in getting an elusive stool. Yet you are stuck in an automatic menu spelling out the name of your location city.
Even more frustrating is knowing that you will never get to ask the query you need to ask, as it isn’t an option: “If I drive to Newark & board my Flight to Tel Aviv there will you cancel my whole trip, as I haven’t started from my ticketed airport of origin, Ithaca?”
There is no doubt the IBM supercomputer Watson gave an impressive performance on “Jeopardy!” this week. But I was worried by the computer’s largest fluff Tuesday night. In answer to the query about naming a U.S. city whose first airport is named after a World War II hero & its second after a World War II battle, it gave Toronto, Ontario.
A human would immediately understand the query & give you an answer. That’s why knowledgeable travelers rush to the nearest airport when they experience a cancellation, so they have a chance to talk to a human agent who can override the computer, than rebook by phone (more likely wait on hold & listen to messages about how incredible a location Tel Aviv is) or talk to a computer.
Both the humans on the program knew the correct answer: Chicago. Even a famously geographically challenged person like me (I come from the United Kingdom & know there is something called the Midwest beyond Chicago) knew the answer.
Not even close!
Why did I do know it? Because I have spent enough time stranded at O’Hare to have visited the monument to Butch O’Hare in the terminal. Watson, who has not, came up with the wrong answer. This reveals precisely what Watson lacks — embodiment.
Watson has never traveled anywhere. Humans travel, so they know all sorts of stuff about travel & airports that a computer doesn’t know. It is the casual, tacit, embodied knowledge that’s the hardest for computers to grasp, but it is often such knowledge that’s most crucial to our lives.
Watson beating the pants out of us on “Jeopardy!” is fun — like seeing a tractor beat a human tug-of-war team. Machines have always been better than humans at some tasks.
Providing unique answers to questions limited to around 25 words isn’t the same as dealing with actual issues of an emotionally distraught passenger in an open method where there may not be a unique answer.
The sizable deal is when what expertise can actually do is overhyped & that’s what all the talk they heard from IBM executives about Watson revolutionizing whole industries was about Wednesday night. Humans know hype when they see it, like they know that dealing with airline reservation systems under crisis is about the worst experience possible, when the computer insists that your location is in Canada than in the United States.
A slide rule could do better than humans at some calculations. It is no sizable deal.

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