I'll Take Baby Names for $500, Alex

Feb 16th 2011

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.


By Gues (not verified)
February 16, 2011 11:26 PM

Plus Watson was Alexander Graham Bell's assistant, and the first person to hear a human voice over a telephone.

February 16, 2011 11:35 PM

And of course, What's on?

February 17, 2011 1:32 AM

I love Jeopardy and watched intently the competition of the past few days. Everything behind Watson was genius from the avatar to the name to the mechanical/intellectual prowess it took to create it. I agree Laura, it couldn't have had ANY other name. I reluctantly admit though that it did NOT make me think about Sherlock Holmes' Watson for even a second.

Fwiw, let's also include the name of the computer in the classic movie War Games with Matthew Broderick. It's name was Joshua. Although this name was originally the developer's son's name and thus the password, the computer came to be known by it too. With a "passive" name like that it seems like it was bound to be able to be beaten at some point. I love the name but it doesn't seem to fit a supercomputer quite like Watson does. And on a further side note, how popular is this name going to be a year from now. Players of the NOTY-save this one!

February 17, 2011 7:09 AM

Watson is the name my brother suggested for my new son, who will be born in June. Yes, you read that correctly, longtime readers! I have been sitting on this news for months, waiting to have my ultrasound to narrow down the naming game. Let me tell you, it was the surprise of 2010! I'm not quite as old as Kelly Preston, but she's closer to me in age than most of the pregnant Hollywood starlets.

At any rate, please help me out! My kids are named Sarah Br0nwyn and Peter J0seph, so you can see that my naming aesthetic is quite staid.

February 17, 2011 9:19 AM

OMG Elizabeth T-Congratulations I think!? You naming style is quite classic. I find your children's names very nice. Is Sarah's mn after a family member or a longtime fav name? I also think its neat that they have a pattern to their names. CVCVC so maybe the new name can also have that pattern. Fun game? I thought of these:
Simon; Jacob; David; Felix Okay, that didn't really produce the results I had in mind with the exception of David. So other thoughts---
David Andrew
Matthew Thomas
Owen Robert (which fits the pattern also)
Ethan Alexander
Vincent Maxwell
Nicholas James
Christopher Elliott
Lucas Preston (also fits pattern)

February 17, 2011 9:54 AM

Thanks, zoerhenne! We're excited. I didn't notice that the kids' name had a pattern until years after they were born (what kind of an NE am I anyway?!). I thought we should name future children Iris, Otto, and Lulu to maintain the repeating vowels. I guess we could throw Vyvy in there to get the 'y'. David and Matthew are two of my three brothers, so although I love those names (and I named Matthew), they're out. I do like Andrew, Alexander, James, and Lucas. I'll have to start a file!

By justpupsfornow (not verified)
February 17, 2011 11:17 AM

Congrats to you Elizabeth! I too have been waiting for the day I could make my announcement, and we had the gender determinative u/s yesterday: IT'S A BOY! We're due in July and pretty settled on B3ck3tt F1tzhugh. Good and Irish;)

Anyhow, back ON topic, just heard that the AMA is interested in a Watson prototype for scouring medical databases for diagnoses but from what I heard the limitational challenge that needs to be overcome is that in medicine there are often multiple diagnoses which may make it difficult with a system that is designed to pick the best answer. Maybe following some adjustments the medical Watson can be unveiled under a different name! Perhaps Addison??

By Gila B (not verified)
February 17, 2011 11:19 AM

FYI - All the clues have dollar values that are multiples of $200 nowadays, so there's no $500 clues anymore.

I also thought it was interesting that they went for a more human name than they did for Deep Blue, the chess-playing computer that competed with Gary Kasparov about 15 years ago.

February 17, 2011 11:37 AM

"I also thought it was interesting that they went for a more human name than they did for Deep Blue, the chess-playing computer that competed with Gary Kasparov about 15 years ago."

Agreed -- I think that shows that a computer that talks to you feels fundamentally different. (My family has named the talking GPS in our car, and I'm sure we're not the only ones!)

February 17, 2011 11:46 AM

I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords. (No matter what they're named.)

February 17, 2011 12:51 PM

"(My family has named the talking GPS in our car, and I'm sure we're not the only ones!)"

and what pray tell IS the name? Come on Laura, you of all people should not keep us in the dark about such things! LOL

Congrats justpupsfornow! Now you will need a new screen name.

By Hera
February 17, 2011 1:04 PM

With so many unisex names, I wonder if they considered any gender neutral names? As much as I wish they had gone with something more neutral, I must admit that Watson is a pretty perfect name.

February 17, 2011 4:51 PM

@Elizabeth T - Many congratulations!!! I was thinking James, Alexander, Patrick, Owen or Henry (nn Harry) would all work well with your other kids! I see some of these have already appeared on other lists :)

@pupsfornow - Congrats to you too!!! A few of us are due June/July. Nice pick! Can I ask what you were going to go for with a girl?

So I've been asking my sister and SIL what names they want reserved given we are having the first baby. I mentioned before my sister wanted Jackson for a boy. Apparently she has no favourite girls name. My SIL has picked out Monique G3raldine for their girls name. The middle is after her mother. Second girl will also use Margaret or a variation that I'm planning on using after the same grandmother. Neither of us care that we will possibly use the same middle name.

February 17, 2011 5:03 PM

Chimu-Guess you are free to run with things as I can't see you using Monique even though its a fine name :)

By ajg (not verified)
February 17, 2011 5:45 PM

I agree Watson is a well-chosen name.

However, after all those years watching Star Trek TNG, I would not have been phased by a brainy computer with a female voice. :)

February 17, 2011 7:52 PM

Another association with the name Watson is James Watson, who discovered the double helix shape of DNA along with Francis Crick, which I think also is fitting.

February 17, 2011 9:20 PM

Heck, we named our garage door! It was so cantankerous a few months ago that the kids and I would shout at it to close as we left the house every morning. Finally they started calling it a name: Steve. Does this leave out Stephen for our new baby? (Sadly my cousin's wild child who has developed a dangerous fascination with knives is named Steven, so I think it's out.)

By justpupsfornow (not verified)
February 17, 2011 10:19 PM

@Chimu - we were thinking Hadley Bryn. Certainly less Irish but similarly less common. We'll probably still use it down the road as this is our first child on the way:)

Can't wait to hear as all these other summer babies get named!

February 17, 2011 10:21 PM

"My family has named the talking GPS in our car, and I'm sure we're not the only ones!"

Ours is nicknamed Jelly. :)

By Kern (not verified)
February 17, 2011 11:21 PM

It's interesting that the GPS voices are usually female. We call ours Betty.

By Kern (not verified)
February 17, 2011 11:27 PM

It's interesting that the GPS voices are usually female. We call ours Betty.

By Kern (not verified)
February 17, 2011 11:28 PM

It's interesting that the GPS voices are usually female. We call ours Betty.

By Kern (not verified)
February 17, 2011 11:33 PM

Sorry for the repeat posts! Molasses slow internet in this cruddy hotel I'm in is messing with me.

By Beth the original (not verified)
February 18, 2011 2:09 AM

Sadly, if Watson were female, a huge porn industry would just spring up around it/her. Nothing says "the core message of research progress" less than a woman.

February 18, 2011 2:14 AM

@Kern: Good point! Ours is also female, named Maggie.

February 18, 2011 2:23 AM

We have a robotic vaccuum cleaner called Ella, which is a continuation longstanding family joke because my parents used to insist that their (wholly imaginary) maid Ella would "take care of it" and/or berate Ella's laziness or blame untidiness on "Ella's weekend off". :) We had no idea the name would take off to such a degree! I have been meaning to ask my parents how they came across that name.

I had some discussions about the gender of fictional computer characters with a friend. The friend insisted that all of the robots she could think of were very male in gender. I wasn't entirely sure whether that was true of the British TV Sci-fi sitcome Red Dwarf... or if it is, there's a great deal of deliberate playing with gender roles. Holly, the shipboard computer is initially played by a male face on a pixelated monitor. Then in one episode the entire cast of the Red Dwarf meet their opposite sex equivalents from a parallel universe, and Holly falls in love with Hilly, his equivalent. (The other female universe parallels were Arnold/Arlene, Dave/Debbie and Cat/Dog.) Some time later Holly takes Hilly's face, in honor of his ongoing feelings after he has returned to his universe. Convenient because I think it coincided with the actor wanting to leave the show, and surprisingly effective because the actress did a very good seamless transition of portraying exactly the same personality, just now with a female face delivering exactly the same humor and sense of self. Very fun: I don't think I've ever seen the same character pass from an actor to an actress within a show before. I think having it be a computer enabled a large degree of fluidity of gender, and I like that that fluidity was associated with a unisex name from the beginning.

February 18, 2011 2:49 AM

@zoerhenne, yep Monique is nice but not my style so I'm safe! TBH, I kind of suspected we wouldn't even be close in style so I had no problems being polite in asking :)

@pupsfornow - Hadley Bryn is lovely. Both are less common choices and go well together.

Interestingly my parents GPS is male and is named George!

I actually named our xmas turkey one year. It was already frozen when we got it but I still named him Gerald. Now every year the Turkey is just refered to as 'Gerald.' There is always 'pass me some more Gerald' or 'Can I have some gravy with my Gerald'.

February 18, 2011 9:41 AM

All these comments about things with names are funny. The turkey especially made me chuckle Chimu! The closest I can come to that is the fact that my daughter has named EVERY single stuffed animal that has ever entered the house and refuses to get rid of any of them. "But I can't get rid of Blueberry (a blue bear). He's so cute" How do you tell her to get rid of them once they have NAMES LOL?

By GuestABC (not verified)
February 18, 2011 10:59 AM

Elizabeth T. -


February 18, 2011 1:08 PM

Elizabeth T-Some other of my favorite names are:
Brian; Jeffrey; Nathaniel; Richard

By Fish NLI (not verified)
February 18, 2011 1:56 PM

My friends named their GPS "Demanda" because she was always telling them what to do!

By Jane 6 (not verified)
February 18, 2011 5:21 PM

New baby among my acquaintances: Iri5 Ev@ngeline. I love it and am kinda jealous.

February 18, 2011 6:53 PM

Thanks, all! I'm keeping a list and will update you periodically on how the great name search 2011 is going for me.

Jane 6, Iris E. is a great name!

Sign spotted in the neighborhood today with a stork on it: Eliza Lyn.

By EVie
February 18, 2011 7:32 PM

My English stepfather calls his and my mother's GPS Nigel. He changed it to a male voice with an English accent after getting annoyed that the American female default pronounced "route" wrong (he kept saying, "No! A rout is when an army runs away after losing a battle!") They also refer to it by what seems to be the predominant British term, "sat nav."

February 18, 2011 8:00 PM

EVie-Is he rhyming it with "root" like what grows in the ground (which I always thought was the American pronunciation) or like out with an R?

By ErinsFoodFiles (not verified)
February 18, 2011 8:06 PM

Yet another fascinating post! :)

Just wanted to let you know Laura, I am the one who emailed you to be sure Amazon was shipping the newest version. Thanks again for your speedy reply! I've already received it, and can't wait to gift it! :)

February 18, 2011 8:36 PM

@ajg - I was thinking about Star Trek while reading Laura's comment about a female voice too! I think that the voice was in all the series though, except possibly the original series. And the actress, Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, had quite an interesting first name. I wonder if it was kre8tive or a family name?

@zoerhenne - I think that route is another of those words where there the standard pronunciation in America varies by region. I live in the Rocky Mountain region. With the exception of referring to Route 66 (pronounced root like what grows in the ground), I've only ever heard people around here use the "out with an R" pronunciation.

By JM (not verified)
February 19, 2011 12:37 AM

Elizabeth T.--I haven't followed long enough to know your surname, but here are a few other ideas that haven't really come up:

-George Andrew
-James Thomas
-Daniel Alexander

By LaurenReynolds (not verified)
February 19, 2011 11:53 AM

For a great example of a female AI, look no further than the fantastically creepy GlaDOS, from the video game Portal. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GLaDOS

One of the greatest video game characters of all time, I think. She even has a song on Rockband.

February 19, 2011 12:11 PM

Fernie-That is quite possible. I wasn't thinking about that.

Elizabeth T-I will second JM's idea of Daniel for you and also add the only other boys name on my favorites list here: Gregory.

February 19, 2011 12:25 PM

I love the name Daniel! Gregory is already over-represented in our family, however.

By EVie
February 19, 2011 2:13 PM

zoerhenne - the British English pronunciation is like "root." Some Americans say it that way, too—I do (from NYC—and I think you've said you're originally from CT, right? Not too far away). But unfortunately for my stepfather, the sat-nav says it the other way (and it says "Calculating route" A LOT).

Back on names—have any of you NEs watched the ITV series Downton Abbey (rebroadcast on PBS in the States)? I can't remember if I've seen it mentioned here or not... I just watched it online (I'm a little late to the party) and found the female name choices very striking. It takes place in 1912-1914, and the women in the aristocratic Crawley family include grandmother Violet, mother Cora, and young adult daughters Mary, Edith and Sybil, as well as a middle-aged cousin Isobel. The servants include middle-aged women Elsie and Sarah, and young women Anna, Gwen and Daisy. The men's names are much more expected (Robert, Thomas, William, John), but I did find the choice of Matthew for the Earl's middle-class cousin and heir to be very apt—I'm not super familiar with the Edwardian period, but it strikes me as a very middle-class choice, in a period when aristocratic families would be more likely to pick Norman names like Henry, Richard, Charles, etc.

February 19, 2011 2:44 PM


My favorite Downton Abbey female name was Rosamund, the aunt dispensing dubious advice who only appeared in the last episode!

And I was delighted to see Evelyn being used on a dashing, male noble with my preferred pronunciation (EVE-lin). His friend Kemal was also a well-chosen name, I think -- if I recall correctly it was also the name of the founder of modern Turkey?

I second the recommendation to watch it -- it's available online at PBS for just a few more days, until the 22nd. Four episodes are totally doable in four days. I greatly enjoyed it, although I did not love it so much that we must name our nextborn after a character in it (i.e. it's no Forsyte Saga!).

In the great GPS debate, I say "Root" for Route, and probably picked that up from growing up in New England. Locally I hear route-rhymes-with-out a great deal, though!

By Pip (not verified)
February 19, 2011 2:57 PM

New baby alert: C0rin J0hn (boy). I had never heard C0rin before, but apparently it comes from Latin and means "spear." I think, after the initial hesitation over how to pronounce it, it has a nice sound that will fit in well with today's trends.

February 19, 2011 5:03 PM

C0rin like C0rin Redgrave, the actor! (Brother to Vanessa Redgrave who was just being discussed in a previous post.) And there was also one in the Narnia books, I think! It's a great name - very British in feeling to me. I like that it's unusual but fits in very smoothly, both in terms of the ends-in-n trend and the nicknames possible being much more mainstream. Great name!

February 19, 2011 6:24 PM

I've also known a Corin! Great name and really suited the Corin. Given I have a love for both Cormac and Soren, Corin is a pretty good alternative in my opinion :)

February 19, 2011 7:45 PM

I know a couple of Corins too. One is Koryn, a girl, probably elem school age by now. The other is a boy, but I can't remember how his name is spelled... I guess he's probably around 3?

February 19, 2011 11:32 PM

I like Corin. It reminds me of a girlfriend in high school. She spelled it Koren with an umlaut over the O. She also therefore pronounced it with the emphasis on the first syllable not the last. It also reminds me or Corbin as in Bernson the actor.

Chimu-If I remember your LN correctly, I don't think it's your best choice.

February 20, 2011 6:51 PM

The male computers remind me of the challenges that Sesame Street has had over the years developing female Muppets. Most of the classic mainstays are male: Oscar, Bert & Ernie, Grover, Big Bird, Cookie, Elmo. (Relatively recent additions: Zoe, Abby & Rosita, but none have the merchandise in the stores that the previous ones have).

I once read it is because you can't have extreme characteristics in female characters: imagine an over-eating female Cookie Monster. It screams sexist in a way that a male-Cookie doesn't. I'm not sure I totally buy the theory, but it seemed to have some plausiblity. (I wish I could remember where I read the article!)

By idea (not verified)
February 20, 2011 8:28 PM

Interesting post as always. I have an idea for a future holiday theme post/research project. (The comment about naming the garage door Steve made me think of this.) A big holiday trend with kids right now is the "Elf on the Shelf." (A toy elf that magically appears in your home at the beginning of the Christmas season, sits in a different location in your home each day, and travels to the North Pole every night to report to Santa.) Anyway, part of the deal is that the kid names the elf. My niece's is Steve! I wonder what all the other kids are naming theirs and why . . . .