Stand Still. Let Me Get That Supercomputer Out of Your Eye

Suddenly, everybody wants to jam a supercomputer into your pockets.

Intel, which had only been sticking stuff in your computer till recently, badly wants in on this coveted space. Nividia is vying for the same real estate, as is IBM. McKinsey has written a PDFed report on all this, and there’s even an infographic.

Let’s hope you’re not wearing form-fitting jeans, cuz this contest for your pocket is just heating up.

Watson, Ken Jennings, and Brad Rutter in their Jeopardy! exhibition match – Wikipedia

Here’s a sign of how blistering it’s getting: IBM’s CEO Virginia Rometty recently announced on Mobile World Congress stage that IBM was kicking off global competition to get app developers to jump on the supercomputer-in-your pocket bandwagon. The idea is to sort to crowdsource the creation of a bunch of apps that take advantage of IBM’s Watson.

Don’t remember Watson? It’s the mechanized egghead that trounced Jeopardy champions not so long ago. If you haven’t seen a recording of that event yet, you should. It was ugly. It was scary. And spell-binding. Watson was, in short, the kind of merciless, Frankensteinian monster you want playing on your team. It is to Jeopardy what Shaq was to basketball during his heyday.

So, here’s the idea: get Watson working for the average smartphone user via a bunch of apps. That may still take a while because IBM has to vet hundreds of development groups that want in on the game. In the end, though, there can be only one! No, wait, that’s Highlander. Actually, there can be only 25 development groups, which sounds less dramatic but is still pretty darn Darwinian.

Now, envison a Siri that actually works most of the time. At the moment, Siri ain’t no Scarlett Johansson. I’m afraid she’s still more like the pretty but ditsy secretaries from movies in the 50s, the “girls” at whom the knife-sharp Katherine Hepburn was always rolling her eyes.  Watson, by contrast, will be more like Jarvis in Ironman or Hal 9000 in 2001 (though hopefully with a better shrink). Like Siri, however, Watson my be a she.

So, do you think Watson will stay in your pocket?

My guess? No effing way!

Watson’s going to want to ride high, maybe via Google Glass or something akin. She’ll wind up as the queen of Terminator-like head-up diplays, sort of like the homunculi we’ve sometimes envisioned operating in our heads (see graphic), except quicker witted and better read.

Homunculi in the Mind: From “A Psychologist’s Journey to Life”

“Imagine a new class of apps that deliver deep insights to consumers and business users instantly — wherever they are — over the cloud,” said Senior Vice President Mike Rhodin, creeping me out only a little. “It’s about changing the essence of decision making from ‘information at your fingertips’ to actual insights.”

It’s no wonder that Google has waded hip-deep into that career-killing swamp known as artificial intelligence. It doesn’t want Watson gobbling up its business.

Here’s how the nightmare scenario goes:

Google sits on a virtual throne, King of the Known Universe, as web-searchers bow down before it. Then, suddenly, in a surreal flash, every web-searching human in the world turns into silver droplets that merge into in a shiny, giant image of Alex Trebek:

Alex: “Welcome contestants, let’s play a little Jeopardy, shall we? Here we go: ‘This Scottish-born chef is known for his TV rants at weaker restaurateurs.”

Google hits its buzzer first and says, “What is practice test – jeopardy?”

Alex winces, then looks sad: “No, sorry.”

Watson hits her buzzer.

Alex: “Go ahead, Watson.”

Watson: “Who is Gordon Ramsay, Alex?”

Alex: “Right again, Watson. The score is 6,000 to -2000 going into our second round. Now for a message from our sponsors.”

When the cameras go down, Alex pulls out a pistol, holds it to the head of Google, saying, “Goodbye old bean, you served us all well for many years. Now, my bedimmed friend, on to your reward.”

Gunshot, followed by a quick moment of silence and then an audience applauding wildly.

This is where I imagine Larry Page sits straight up in bed in a cold sweat. Even though it’s the middle of the night, he gets his EA on the phone. “Quick, get me that number of that strange Singularity guy, what’s his name, yeah Kurzweil. We have to talk. Nobody’s gonna shoot my baby in the head.”

Meanwhile, Watson patiently waits in the background for now, biding her time, softly humming a tune that is almost recognizable. What a minute. Is that “Daisy Bell”?

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