Posted & filed under Blog

I know you saw IBM’s impressive Watson robot/computer/cyborg wipe the floor with some of Jeopardy’s smartest winners this week.   There is no question that it is brilliant AI (Artificial Intelligence) programming and that the team of computer scientists, coders, linguists, and other knowledge-makers have done an incredible job pushing robotics forward.  But is Watson smarter than a 5th grader?   Short answer:  no.   Longer answer:  well, in some things he is lots smarter and in others, he doesn’t stand a chance.

Here’s why:   Jeopardy operates on far clearer linguistic rules than ordinary speech and ordinary conversation.   A 5th grader, even a smart one, doesn’t have Watson’s data base so cannot begin to know all those answers to all those clearly formulated, explicit questions.   However, Watson doesn’t remotely have a 5th grader’s life-long “data base” of language formations, colloquialisms, neologisms, and grammatical errors that still “compute” (i.e. you can figure out what is meant despite the error–if you are a 5th grader, but probably not if you are Watson).   Watson “hears” questions by anticipating the sentence patterns of the Jeopardy questions and, searching among hundreds or even thousands of possible grammatical place holders, figures out what the subject and the relevant adjectives and even a few verbs are, pulls those out of the sentence, searches for complex integrated matches from its gigantic data bases, and then goes for the answer with the highest probability of being right.

Impressive.   But where a 5th grader is far smarter is in not needing to be pitched a fact-based question in a standardized formulation.  The fun of Jeopardy is its predictability in the question part–and then the ability or inability of various contestants to fill in the blanks.   The questions on the program always come in categories and, in fact, there are websites for humans (such as this one:  which give you advice for preparing for the show by understanding how the questions are formulated, what categories the answers will be in and so forth.  All of that is key to winning, and to programming Watson.

It’s also key to item-response (multiple choice) testing.   But where Jeopardy isn’t life and multiple-choice tests assess how much you know in multiple choice tests but not logic, creativity, problem solving, extrapolation, inference, or inductive reasoning, is where a 5th grader is already doing pretty well.  That 5th grader knows all the variations of language, including the mistakes, and is learning–from Legos or Pokemon or Harry Potter or Barbie dolls–all kinds of subtle and complex cultural and intellectual rules that allow her to make inferences that are not about plucking the right fact from a data base.   The 5th grader is also learning sociality, collaboration, cultural norms.  Ethics too, fall in the category of questions where Watson is dumber than a 5th grader.    “Why don’t we sneak some  ice cream—or are you afraid of what your Mom will say?” is not an easy question for anyone–and I would not trust Watson with giving my kid the right answer, at least one that would be compelling.   He may, in fact, get it right but the process isn’t the ethically-driven consideration of desire and punishment, respect for authority and independence,  coercion and friendship, and on and on and on.   Being a 5th grader is very hard work and Watson is rarely up to the challenge.

When I was a 5th grader, I wanted to grow up to do one thing:  to create Watson.  It’s a weird dream for a little girl, I know, but when others were playing Barbie, I loved writing equations that would translate language into propositions.   I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to math camp where this odd take on the world got a lot of kudos from the camp counselors.  I was a philosophy major in college because math and computer science departments hadn’t yet claimed the area that, back then, was called “quantitative logic” and what now might be “computational linguistics.”  It’s also called “natural language,” writing code not based on 0 and 1 but on figuring out the ways humans actually speak and trying to render that into a language from which machines could learn and relearn.   If you have a computer program that learns you are writing French in the midst of your English sometimes and stops trying to correct your “mistakes,” it is using a natural language programming of a simple sort.   Watson’s natural language skills are extraordinary.

My college thesis was full of what we called “chicken scratching.”   Equations.  Hundreds, maybe thousands of them.  The one sentence that was its subject was “I hurt my ankle.”   Four words.  The relationship of the “I” and the “my” in that sentence takes  lot of programing.  So does the definition of “ankle” since its differentiation from other parts of the leg is not absolute.   “Hurt”?  Sheeeesh.   At some point, I flipped into semantics . . . then English . .  . then, voila, history of technology which blends all of them.   But I still pause whenever I hear “I hurt my ankle” . . . and I am flabbergasted by Watson.

But Watson’s dexterity with “I hurt my ankle” doesn’t matter to most 5th graders.   The dilemmas and interactivity of learning and language that we all face operates on a different level, by different codes, than Watson’s.  We have much to learn from Watson as he learns from us.   And we have much, of course, to learn about the fabulously complex ways we negotiate the world.  Admire Watson.  And tonight, dear friends, give that 5th grader (now, past, or future) a hug . . .   In so many ways that matter most, that 5th grader is smarter than the most brilliant Watson in the world.

Leave a Reply

(will not be published)
Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

Follow Cathy