Friday, February 18th, 2011...12:40 am

What Does Watson Mean To You?

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Perhaps I am being too bold, but doesn’t Watson, the IBM supercomputer and “Jeopardy! champion,” demonstrate clearly that there is very little value in the memorization and regurgitation of information?

For those who may not already know, Watson is an artificial intelligence program developed by IBM to answer questions posed in natural language.  What makes Watson so remarkable is its ability to interpret some of the nuances of human language (puns, jokes, cultural references).  Recently, Watson competed in a special Jeopardy! series of “Man vs. Machine” and won by a significant margin.

It has been clear to me for some time that we live in a world of information abundance, which has changed our lives in profound ways.  At our fingertips we have access to an unmeasurable amount of information – providing answers to virtually any question.  But until Watson came along, we still needed a real human’s critical thinking skills to process the information.  After every Google search, humans naturally ask questions like, “is this the information I was looking for?”, ”does this information seem accurate?”, “is there a bias in the results?”, etc.  Now, I know that there is still a LOT of thinking that a computer can’t do, but it seems to me that the gap is getting narrower.

As teachers in the 21st century, we need to help students refine their skills, not fill their heads with content.  In this day and age, information is cheap and readily accessible.  Our energy is much better spent instilling within students a curiosity for life and love of learning.  We need to help students think critically and develop problem solving skills.  We need to provide them opportunities to communicate and collaborate.  We need to empower them to be independent and self-directed people.  We need to give them a place to discover their talents and appreciate the talents of others.  We need to nurture their creativity and innovation.  And we need to help them care for one another.

I think that every teacher should ask the question of themselves:  At the end of my course, what skills will my students have developed?  I don’t think that Watson will be able to answer that question any time soon.



3 Comments

  • Excellent blog! Though I have to admit, I’m still a big fan of trivia games and don’t think Jeopardy! will ever go out of style :)

  • I think we really need to do both. True, we can look things up much more easily than we once could. But I often find it useful, in teaching and in general conversation, if I have details and facts in my memory, at my disposal. The important element to emphasize is that fact acquisition alone is not enough. We want students not only to know the facts, but to understand their importance and their significance. We want them to be able to interpret and analyze details, to think deeply and carefully about what inferences they can draw from what they know.

    Thanks for a thoughtful post.

    • I very much agree with you. It is important to be able to maintain details and facts in memory. Especially as teachers, often the flow of our lessons depend on our ability to draw on meaningful details and facts from memory at any time.

      I guess the reason I find Watson to be such an important shift is because of the way that natural language can be used to access information. Even now, when I Google something, I have to be very particular in how I frame my key words, and I need to intelligently survey the results to ensure that I am getting what I want to find. But, Watson does both of those things with a fairly high degree of success. (Of course, the computer is not actually thinking, but generating a statistically probably answer). I think that Watson is a huge turning point, not because it means that I no longer have to store facts in my head, but because it makes it that much easier to find facts that aren’t yet in my head.

      Thanks for the insightful comment.

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