Afew weeks ago Alex Trebek introduced humanity to a new friend: His name is Watson, he is good at trivia, and he is a blue glowing orb on a plasma TV. When he's feeling good, he turns green. When he speaks, he sounds like an ordinary American man. He is polite.
All the same, it came as a relief to hear that Watson finally lost a round of "Jeopardy" last Monday - to former "Jeopardy" winner Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., in a Trebek-less exhibition against members of Congress - after shellacking former superchamps Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter a couple weeks before. Watson may seem harmless, maybe even cute (those vertical rays hovering over his globe-face makes him look as if he's in a constant state of surprise). But using sci-fi movies, TV shows and books as our guide, we know that sometimes it's the friendliest-seeming robots that turn out to have the worst intentions.
Which makes it bewildering that IBM designers settled on an avatar for Watson (named for IBM's first president, Thomas J. Watson) that just happens to resemble perhaps the most infamous of all of sci-fi's evil machines, HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey." Undoubtedly, this is a comparison IBM would just as soon not evoke; after all, there's that urban legend of Stanley Kubrick envisioning HAL as a future-generation IBM machine. (Just take the name HAL, move all the letters forward one place in the alphabet and what do you get?) It's not just the glowing orb-for-a-face - it's that serene American-accented male voice shared by HAL, the one that becomes all the more sinister when he begins lying to the crew and disobeying orders. Today it's "I'll take $800, same category, Alex," but tomorrow it could be, "I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that."
Movie references aside, it's notable IBM that went the route of HAL, whereas robot-crazy Japan has been going in another direction. Their robots often resemble child-size American astronauts. And they're helpful, like the domestics of the Jetsons who do the laundry and fetch the drinks. (The underlying goal seems to be the creation of a robot working class, filling a demographic void in Japanese society ... robots being preferable to immigrants, apparently.)
Watson's stint on "Jeopardy" didn't just give us a hint of the future of artificial intelligence technology. It established the rules and etiquette by which we may be expected to interact with robots in the future. As our human ambassador to the robot world, Trebek treated Watson as he would an eccentric foreign savant: playful yet respectful. At one point he teased, "Oh you sneak!" when Watson wagered a low amount on a Final Jeopardy question he ultimately got wrong.
The personification of Watson wasn't without its hitches, however, and it resulted in some fine comedic moments. Take the wonderful deadpan irony of the traditional camera pan during the thinking portion of Final Jeopardy. The shot begins on contestant Jennings, human, deep in concentration. The famous "Jeopardy" music plays. The camera pans right. There, behind the "Jeopardy" podium bearing his name is a TV screen with the image of a glowing orb. Hold. Then pan over finally to the other contestant, Rutter, writing his answer. Just another day on the "Jeopardy" set.
One human treatment not afforded to Watson was the opportunity to talk about the charity he was playing for, as the two humans did after the first commercial break on Watson's final show. But this may be for the best. What should we do if Watson, or some future robotic "Jeopardy" contestant, announces he'll be playing for an advocacy group promoting robot rights? Think about that. At that point our new "friend" becomes something else entirely.