Home > Computers and Internet, Entertainment > Wherefore art thou named Watson?

Wherefore art thou named Watson?

One of the exciting pieces of technology right now is IBM’s Watson. Watson is a computer system that pulls in information from trusted sources, analysis it, and answer questions asked to it. According to Wikipedia, Watson is named after IBM’s first President: Thomas J. Watson. But I don’t find any other references to this, and I suspect that it may not be whom Watson is named after. I propose the Watson was actually named after Bunny Watson, the reference librarian in Desk Set.

Desk Set is a movie which deals with the issue of technology advancing into the workplace and replacing human jobs. Bunny Watson (played by Katharine Hepburn) is the head of the Reference Department for the Federal Broadcasting Company. Her job primarily involves knowing everything. She (and her coworkers) sit at desks and anyone can call them looking for information, and the Reference Department answers their questions. I imagine this was very important back in the days when there was journalism integrity, and facts were more important than sensationalism. While watching one of the exchanges at the beginning of the movie, where Ms. Watson is asked a question and spits out the answer I think to myself “Hey, that’s just like Watson”, referring to the modern computer system. The role that Watson has in the company is to answers people’s questions (both the computer and the reference librarian).

The primary point of conflict in the movie is that the company has hired International Business Machines to install their latest device in the Reference Department; the Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator (EMARAC). Everyone in the department are worried that they’re being replaced by this “electronic brain”, and get very worried at the demo when the machine answers all of the questions that the company executives ask it. Later in the movie things go catastrophically bad for EMARAC as it prints out incorrect answers to questions. The reason why it gives wrong answers is because the answers it gives out are close, but not quite what the people are asking for. Any human can see that while the words in the answer match words in the question, the context is wrong. There’s no way a machine will ever understand the context. Humans rise to the task to save the day, where the machine fell short.

The movie may have been 54 years too early. IBM is at it again, but instead of making a movie prop, they’ve made the real thing. It’s still a large, multi room monstrosity, but it’s not EMARAC that’s answering the questions, it’s Watson, doing exactly what Bunny Watson was doing in the 1950’s. Why not keep the name?

  1. peachyquin
    June 12, 2015 at 5:54 am

    Watching Desk Set for the first time right now and I think IBM’s Watson is named after Bunny too! Googled it and ended up here.
    Just saw the scene where the MIT-trained computer scientist Sumner throws all the brain teasers at Research Librarian Bunny Watson and she completely owns it (she says she remembers large amounts of info “by association”). At this point Sumner’s goal is to replace Watson and her entire department with a “brain machine” (though I suspect his motive will change…love & such). Bunny also mentions that she had just watched an IBM computer demo that morning 😉

    Watson is a woman. I love it!

  2. Mark
    January 9, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    I know this is an old post, but I was watching this movie, Desk Set, with my mom the other day (she was born in 1953 and has been in the software programming field for years) and she brought up the same thing. She said, “I wonder if they named IBM’s Watson after Hepburn’s character.” Perhaps the character’s last name was chosen as an homage to the IBM president in the first place, but I think there is definitely a connection between the current Watson system and this movie. As someone who was born in the 80’s, it was pretty cool to see such an old movie almost predict the way that technology would change the way we access information many decades before it existed. It’s also a pretty funny flick with a lot of good one-liners and grat actors.

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