Monday, February 14, 2011

Watson's Secret

How many of you watched the IBM super-computer Watson battle all time Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on Jeopardy tonight?  It was amazing....and scary.

Online, I saw the comment that 'Watson cleaned Jenning's clock."  That person was closer to the truth than he or she may have known.  Or did the person know....the true secret of Watson?

Terminator series fans may have thought of Skynet....science fiction fans may have been reminded of HAL...but I bet not too many of you thought of Harlow Bundy.

Who he?

Let's turn back the, er, clock to the late 1880's when a man with the last name of Bundy developed a time recording device (the forerunner of our modern day time clock) and he and his brother ended up founding the Bundy Manufacturing Company here in the Triple Cities to manufacture the invention.

One of the brothers built a mansion on Main Street in Binghamton, which today is a museum (and well worth the visit.)  As for the Bundy Manufacturing Company, it moved to nearby Endicott in 1906 and eventually became....IBM, through a series of mergers.

So why is the computer playing on Jeopardy called Watson and not Bundy?

Because, in 1914, one Thomas Watson joined the Computer Tabulating Recording Company, which had been formed through a merger of the Bundy Manufacturing Company and several other entities.  In a long story which others can tell much better than I can, Thomas Watson renamed the company when he took control in 1924 and became the person known as the father of IBM.  Thomas Watson is still revered in the Triple Cities today.  The Endicott complex of IBM buildings stands, although much of it is no longer occupied by IBM.

When I came here in the 1980's, people aspired to work for IBM.  Today, it is way shrunken.  What remains?  A few thousand employees and a street named after Thomas Watson, ....Watson Boulevard. (which, when it enters Johnson City, changes its name to Harry L. Drive - named, of course, after one of the Johnson family that Johnson City was named after. And of course, readers of this blog know what happened to THEIR company, Endicott-Johnson.)

In the meantime, IBM has moved on...and $30 million dollars later, its computer named Watson is playing Jeopardy while we humans watch in a combination of pride....and horrified fascination.

Watson even had to pass the same test human contestants must pass to get on the show.

Tonight we got through single Jeopardy.  Tomorrow is Double Jeopardy and Final Jeopardy.  Wednesday is an entire second game.

Will Watson continue to clean up?  Or will humanity persevere and conquer?  Will Watson become the first millionaire computer?  (no, IBM will donate its earnings to charity.  But just think if they allowed the computer to keep its earnings and invest them...)

I'll be in front of the TV, watching.

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