Everybody is very excited about Watson, the robot who plays Jeopardy. Of course, this is a huge breakthrough in computational linguistics — getting a machine to understand linguistic input and respond in kind is something that people have only dreamed about (or written about in science fiction novels). And congratulations to the folks at IBM and their collaborators who built it — seriously, you’ve done something really cool. Human language is irregular and full of nuances that people have been trying to teach computers for fifty years.
I have seen many people freaking out that this is the start of the robot takeover. I can’t agree more with b. edwards about this subject: Watson is really good at playing Jeopardy, but grilled cheese machines are really good at making grilled cheese sandwiches and nobody’s freaking out.
Watson is remarkably adept at sifting through human language for word clues to obtain the right answers, but is far from understanding and comprehending the concepts behind language. There are many uses for this technology, some of which have been revealed by IBM (medical uses like coming up with possible diagnoses based on lists of symptoms, for example). Watson is probably a gateway to greater machine learning and language technology; humans are getting closer to being able to build ourselves a companion which can interact like us — or at least play our favorite games with us — but we aren’t anywhere close to making a Hal or an R. Daneel Olivaw.