Does "Watson" meet the Nelson Mandela test?

When can machines be said to think?

Could IBM's "Watson," featured in this weekend's New York Times Magazine, finish what Alan Turing started and profitably build on Google's breakthrough? Could it offer answers, not simply by pointing to a raft of web pages where an answer might be found, but by understanding the allusive meaning in the question itself?

As IBM is no doubt aware, there are real world needs that might be addressed by a machine capable of true thought:

In the last decade, question-answering systems have become increasingly important for firms dealing with mountains of documents. Legal firms, for example, need to quickly sift through case law to find a useful precedent or citation; help-desk workers often have to negotiate enormous databases of product information to find an answer for an agitated customer on the line. In situations like these, speed can often be of the essence; in the case of help desks, labor is billed by the minute, so high-tech firms with slender margins often lose their profits providing telephone support. How could I.B.M. push question-answering technology further?

In an effort to popularize the technology, the company is working with “Jeopardy!”, which will have Watson square off against some of the game’s best former players, perhaps as early as this fall.

I might just watch.

In the meantime, I've got some ideas about when human-built hardware might match our wetware.

The hallmark of intelligent thought is not just an ability to pick out the answer, but to fashion meaningful questions. Though caricatured on the show, it's one basis, I think, for the enduring popularity of Jeopardy!

Thought is also about creativity. Daniel Tammet, who will be at the 2010 IdeaFestival, has been said to be among the brightest people now on the planet, despite the fact that he is autistic. He has argued that his particular and highly regarded intelligence has biological roots. His senses are cross-wired. As he has explained in this brief interview with the IdeaFestival, numbers are colorful shapes that merge into landscapes that he can manipulate to find the answers. Incredibly, his biology - and his ability to describe what how his mind works - might hold important clues for all of us about the creative process in general.

But even more importantly, true thought has an important relational dimension. We constantly seek understanding of one thing in terms of another. Should Watson encounter a certain clue about a figure of incredible importance to a country now in the news because of the World Cup, I expect it to answer in true Jeopardy-style: "'Who is Nelson Mandela?', Alex." But a truly intelligent question, and the one was so graciously answered in history was this:

Can I ever really forgive them?

Wayne