by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker
How long will it be before you lose your job to a robot?
There are many accounts of the genesis of Watson. The most popular, which is not necessarily the most accurate—and this is the sort of problem that Watson himself often stumbled on—begins in 2004, at a steakhouse near Poughkeepsie. One evening, an I.B.M. executive named Charles Lickel was having dinner there when he noticed that the tables around him had suddenly emptied out. Instead of finishing their sirloins, his fellow-diners had rushed to the bar to watch “Jeopardy!” This was deep into Ken Jennings’s seventy-four-game winning streak, and the crowd around the TV was rapt. Not long afterward, Lickel attended a brainstorming session in which participants were asked to come up with I.B.M.’s next “grand challenge.” The firm, he suggested, should take on Jennings.
I.B.M. had already fulfilled a similar “grand challenge” seven years earlier, with Deep Blue. The machine had bested Garry Kasparov, then the reigning world chess champion, in a six-game match. To most people, beating Kasparov at chess would seem a far more impressive feat than coming up with “Famous First Names,” say, or “State Birds.” But chess is a game of strictly defined rules. The open-endedness of “Jeopardy!”—indeed, its very goofiness—made it, for a machine, much more daunting.