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What humans know that Watson doesn't

By Trevor Pinch, Special to CNN
  • Trevor Pinch says when faced with flight change, seek human, not computer, help
  • Humans can understand problem, override automated ticketing system, he says
  • Watson blew airport question because it had never been to O'Hare, Pinch says
  • Pinch: Humans have tacit knowledge from travel snafus, etc. that computer can't grasp

Editor's note: Trevor Pinch is a professor of science and technology studies at Cornell University.

(CNN) -- One of the most frustrating experiences produced by the winter from hell is dealing with the airlines' automated answer systems. Your flight has just been canceled and every second counts in getting an elusive seat. Yet you are stuck in an automated menu spelling out the name of your destination city.

Even more frustrating is knowing that you will never get to ask the question you really want to ask, as it isn't an option: "If I drive to Newark and board my Flight to Tel Aviv there will you cancel my whole trip, as I haven't started from my ticketed airport of origin, Ithaca?"

A human would immediately understand the question and give you an answer. That's why knowledgeable travelers rush to the nearest airport when they experience a cancellation, so they have a chance to talk to a human agent who can override the computer, rather than rebook by phone (more likely wait on hold and listen to messages about how wonderful a destination Tel Aviv is) or talk to a computer.

There is no doubt the IBM supercomputer Watson gave an impressive performance on "Jeopardy!" this week. But I was worried by the computer's biggest fluff Tuesday night. In answer to the question about naming a U.S. city whose first airport is named after a World War II hero and its second after a World War II battle, it gave Toronto, Ontario.

Not even close!

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Both the humans on the program knew the correct answer: Chicago. Even a famously geographically challenged person like me (I come from the UK and know there is something called the Midwest beyond Chicago) knew the answer.

Why did I know it? Because I have spent enough time stranded at O'Hare to have visited the monument to Butch O'Hare in the terminal. Watson, who has not, came up with the wrong answer. This reveals precisely what Watson lacks -- embodiment.

Watson has never traveled anywhere. Humans travel, so we know all sorts of stuff about travel and airports that a computer doesn't know. It is the informal, tacit, embodied knowledge that is the hardest for computers to grasp, but it is often such knowledge that is most crucial to our lives.

Providing unique answers to questions limited to around 25 words is not the same as dealing with real problems of an emotionally distraught passenger in an open system where there may not be a unique answer.

Watson beating the pants out of us on "Jeopardy!" is fun -- rather like seeing a tractor beat a human tug-of-war team. Machines have always been better than humans at some tasks.

A slide rule could do better than humans at some calculations. It is no big deal.

The big deal is when what technology can actually do is overhyped and that is what all the talk we heard from IBM executives about Watson revolutionizing whole industries was about Wednesday night. Humans know hype when they see it, just like they know that dealing with airline reservation systems under crisis is about the worst experience possible, especially when the computer insists that your destination is in Canada rather than in the United States.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Trevor Pinch.