Unplugging Watson

Last week, something amazing happened: a computer took on two human beings on a game of Jeopardy!–and won. Basically, here’s what happened: IBM designed a supercomputer paired with powerful algorithms that had the ability to interpret a question that was asked using normal grammatical syntax, sift through a large number of articles and books (and from sources like Wikipedia), and then finally find an answer to that question. Pretty amazing.

Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy! computer, doesn’t even look like a computer. Watson has a “face,” consisting of a screen that displays a constantly changing pattern based on Watson’s confidence when answering questions. Watson doesn’t require a human to run–the computer reads the same questions that are provided to the human players, and responds using a text-to-speech system. Watson is arguably more humanlike than any other computer ever created.


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Watch out Baby Boomers…for Robots!


In the era of aging baby boomers, we are concerned about many things: the death of social security, the rise of medical costs, and the overcrowding of nursing homes.  One thing that I am sure we have not considered is the rise of robots.

Yes, you heard (read) me correctly – robots.  According to a February 3rd BBC News article, Japan is pioneering `a caretaker robot for the elderly.  Ri-Man is his name, and he is currently on the market!

Given the declining birthrate, loosening family ties, and strict immigration laws, nursing home workers are in high-demand in Japan.  Leave it up to Toyota and Honda to decide that in addition to automated vehicles, they could produce automated nannies as well!  Ri-Man may be native to Japan, but he could soon be looking after of our baby boomers.  The U.S is also in dire need of elderly care-takers.

Although I was initially very excited by the technology behind Ri-Man, I quickly grew unsettled by the idea.  At first, I couldn’t pinpoint the source of my uneasiness.  After all, robots are appliances, and I use appliances all the time.  My coffee-maker brews my coffee, my microwave heats up my ramen, my straightener tames my hair – I even use an electric toothbrush for goodness sake!  So, why am I so bothered by Ri-Man when I am perfectly content to have technology assist me in every other aspect of my life?

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