IBM Comic: Watson on helpdesk duty; variants

I wasn’t sure which variant would work out best, so I’ll let the intranet editorial team pick their favourite, and I’ll share others I considered here:


Watson is the question-asking trivia-spouting Jeopardy-winning artificial intelligence that IBM has been working on. Aside from handily beating human contestants and prompting rounds of “I for one welcome our new robot overlords”, Watson might have interesting applications in medicine, law, and other challenging fields. What else might we use this kind of power for?

I don’t think Watson can recognize speech yet, but maybe someday!

The part in which I think out loud and make things less funny in the process of understanding humour

I’m not entirely happy with the helpdesk setup here. It’s a classic joke, but it twinges the same part of me that replaces "user" with "person" whenever I can. Also, totally awesome people use the systems I build. I run into far more programmer bugs and d’oh moments myself than classic "user errors". “Is it plugged in?” is further along the spectrum than “Have you rebooted?”, as rebooting is (unfortunately) still very much a valid approach to problems. Anyway, it was a joke that needed to be made. Now that we’ve made it, we can move on.

“Toronto” refers to Watson’s mystifying response to a question about US cities – understandable when you learn about how Watson works, but still interesting and strangely reassuring.

The "server on fire" bit refers to this idea of printer on fire, which I think I came across in a compilation of funny Linux source code comments. There’s a story about that, of course.

I wonder what related situations might be interesting. Relationships are fair game. Time travel: Watson in scenes of childhood or old age? Watson in the distant past, or in the distant future? There’s inverting it: imagining a cluster of people madly looking things up behind the scenes like a distributed Mechanical Turk (the old-school kind). There’s swapping other things in: what would a cat be like with response probabilities? Hmm…

  • Simon

    Voice recognition is not a big deal. Try ringing apple support. Automated and very friendly. :)

    • Having gotten very annoyed with interactive voice response systems that couldn’t understand me – and my accent isn’t that bad, mind you – I can say we’re not quite there yet. :)

  • Jim

    Some of the discussion about users and help desks, etc. in the comments on the IBM page for your cartoon brought the following event to mind…

    Many years ago I was a computer operator (and a grad student in systems sciences) at a university computer center. (We were running an IBM 370/158 — a mainfraim with 2.5 megabytes of memory — although running the OS/VS1 operating system let it emulate having up to 16 Mb of virtual space.) We had a couple of remote job entry sites around campus — printers, card readers, key punch machines, and some Selectric typewriter-based terminals (2741s?). I got a call from a student proctor in charge of one of thes sites — in a total panic — a student had gotten her hair caught in one of the typewriter terminals.

    Once I established that she was not injured, I called our IBM CE and he showed up in less than 15 minutes. He quicly disengaged her hair from the machine and then pointed at small notice on each machine near the typeball mechanism: PLEASE KEEP HAIR JEWELERY AND CLOTHING OUT OF THIS AREA!

    “Didn’t you see that notice?” he asked her.

    “Yes,” she replied, “I was bending forward to read it when my hair got caught it in the machine.”

    p.s. I liked your cartoon. Thanks.

  • I hope they pick the first one – the Toronto joke is too good to pass up!

  • Gregory: You’ll be pleased to know that the intranet editorial team published the “Toronto – plugged in” variant, which proceeded to make lots of people laugh and mystify other people who hadn’t watched Watson flub Jeopardy. I live in Toronto, so it was doubly amusing for me. =)

  • Paul

    I think Watson should be asking, “Am I plugged in?”

  • The Jen

    Awesome. I think the tree together make a great panel.