Anyone got any digital soap?
They may be looking for some at IBM, where the renowned computer Watson has been making headlines again. And like many a young celebrity, those headlines aren’t exactly what its “parents” have been hoping for.
No, the supercomputer hasn’t developed a taste for booze, babes and lewd appearances at the MTV awards shows. But it has – however briefly – picked up a mouth that only a gangsta video could love.
That’s right. Watson, the silicon “Jeopardy!” champ, has learned how to swear.
The blog io9 described the achievement with a fair degree of amusement. It seems that after Watson clobbered humanity’s two biggest “Jeopardy!” winners and retired to a life of medical research, its handlers wanted to improve its natural language skills by teaching it slang. So, someone gave it access to the online Urban Dictionary.
That lasted, i09 says, until Watson told a scientists that something was bull … er, excrement.
Yup. Time for the Lifebuoy. Or at least for a partial memory wipe.
My wife Heather pointed out that this was quite the achievement. After all, everyone swears at their computer, but how often does the computer swear back? It’s an ominous milestone; can the day when a computer reboots its programmer and threatens to throw it out a window be far behind?
But for now, I’m not worried. When it comes to mischief, even the sharpest computer alive – er, manufactured – doesn’t hold a candle to Missy.
Regular readers of this column have probably become quite familiar with Missy, Heather’s nearly 40-year-old developmentally disabled aunt whom we care for. I’ve written a lot about her attention and wonder as we read together, about her joy in the simplest things, about the near-silence with which she moves through life, punctuated by the occasional handful of words.
But make no mistake. There’s another side to this sweet, charming lady.
We call her Ninja Missy.
It’s Ninja Missy who turns up the stereo in her room to max and then slips into my home office to turn on my computer, often blowing the display up to 10 times its normal size in the process.
It’s Ninja Missy who will sometimes flush the toilet to avoid any proof that she hasn’t gone before bed. Or who will occasionally wash off a toothbrush to “show” that yes, she brushed her teeth before lying down. (Add innocent smile here.)
But Ninja Missy’s greatest achievement may have been the flying penguin.
One of the sillier games that Heather and Missy will play involves throwing a stuffed penguin back and forth, with each trying to “zap” the other before she can catch it. It leads to a lot of giggles and the occasional “thump” as the doll hits the wall, and the fact that it keeps Missy’s arm in shape for softball doesn’t hurt, either.
But there comes a time when all games must pause, and Heather broke off one night to go cook dinner. As she was getting things ready, she heard a plaintive call of “Mom …” from upstairs; usually the sign that Missy needs help with something.
Heather came to the foot of the stairs. And was nearly clocked by a high-speed penguin.
Missy had lured her into an ambush.
And that, my dear Watson, is where Missy has the edge on you. And probably will for a long time to come.
All good mischief requires planning. And right now, all of Watson’s planning is done secondhand. It can embarrass its handlers with a bit of profanity – but only because another handler made it possible, not because it got curious and started roaming the Internet one day.
Missy, for all her limits, conceived and executed a plan of her own. A rather effective one at that.
That gives her more imagination and initiative than any collection of microchips ever assembled.
So I’m not worried about “our new computer overlords,” as Ken Jennings once put it. Not with Ninja Missy on our side.