I'll Take Baby Names for $500, Alex
This week IBM unveiled its new Jeopardy-playing computer. The A.I. extravaganza represents years of research and millions of dollars of investment. No detail was overlooked, no expense spared, and no part of the endeavor is more perfect than the computerized contestant's name: Watson.
The name works on many levels. First off, it's solid corporate branding. One look at the ad-covered tv sound stage and Watson's corporate-logo avatar tells you how seriously the company takes that. Thomas J. Watson was the legendary leader who built IBM into a global powerhouse, and the Jeopardy system was developed at IBM's Watson Research Center. To an "IBMer" (yes, they really call themselves that), the name Watson means Research. That message doubtless shines through to the kind of corporate customers who tour IBM labs, too.
For the general public, meanwhile, the name's #1 association is Sherlock Holmes' "Elementary, my dear Watson." That's the perfect image of astonishing deductive power rendered deceptively simple. Better yet, Dr. Watson was Holmes' obedient, non-threatening sidekick. That sets Watson apart from another intelligent talking computer associated with IBM: Space Odyssey's HAL.
For those unfamiliar with HAL, it was the powerful but not so friendly computer that controlled the spaceship in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. At that time IBM was the undisputed king of the computing world, and much was made of the fact that the threatening artificial intelligence bore a name one letter offset from IBM.
For all that Watson's mild name suggests otherwise, this new A.I. and HAL do have a lot in common. Both feature powerful natural language processing, so they can respond to casually worded questions. Both respond in a neutral, modulated, not-quite-human voice. Both are visually represented by an abstract avatar, rather than a humanoid to match their voices. And both, despite being abstract and incorporeal, are presented as male -- and, by most viewers' reckoning, white.
I'm curious how seriously the Watson team considered giving their computer a different kind of identity instead. (I-Be-Emma?) I can reluctantly appreciate, though, why they didn't.
Imagine a vast media blitz behind a "female" A.I. -- let alone an A.I. with an "ethnic" name. Realistically, the public discourse would be drawn away from the technological triumph and toward the identity choice. Some would applaud it as progress; others would disparage it as pandering; still others would try to discern ulterior motives, or just poke fun at it. Whatever the reaction, it would distract from the core message of research progress that IBM worked so hard to craft.
In other words, the "generic masculine" isn't quite dead. The use of "he" to mean any man or woman is falling away, but a female identity is still more noticeable than a male. In this case, a female name may have sounded too noticeably human. IBM took pains to make its Jeopardy player all machine.
Yet we have seen an inspired example of a female-named robot that remained coolly, imposingly robotic: the animated EVE in the movie Wall-E. Apparently creative minds can get past that sex barrier...if they need a romantic partner for a male robot. Baby steps.