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In a New Play, Trusty Sidekick Is a Supercomputer


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. If you tuned into "Jeopardy!" in 2011, you might have heard an exchange like this.


ALEX TREBEK: Watson, start us, please.

WATSON: The European Union for $200.

TREBEK: As of 2010, Croatia and Macedonia are candidates but this is the only former Yugoslav Republic in the EU. Brad.

BRAD: What is Bosnia?

TREBEK: No. Watson.

WATSON: What is Serbia?

TREBEK: No. That too is incorrect. The correct response is what is Slovenia. Watson, back to you.

FLATOW: That's Watson, IBM's supercomputer playing "Jeopardy!" of course. That was one of the very few answers that he got wrong, that Watson got wrong on "Jeopardy!" and he competed against two of "Jeopardy!"'s most successful players, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. And despite that fumble, Watson beat his human adversaries handily.

Computer scientists worldwide, you know, they stood up. They took notice. And so did a young playwright named Madeleine George. George's latest play is called "The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence." And it just had its world premiere off Broadway. It stars no less than four different Watsons — among them, a fictionalized version of IBM's supercomputer.

And it's a play about amazing things technology can do for us and what it can't. And I'm very happy to have with me playwright Madeleine George. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MADELEINE GEORGE: Thank you so much for having me.

FLATOW: I did enjoy that play.

GEORGE: I'm glad.

FLATOW: And was it "Jeopardy!" an a-ha moment for you to write a play about Watson?

GEORGE: It was. I mean, in fact, I had had the germ of an idea earlier than that. I had sort of noticed that there were these Watson figures through our cultural history that all served as helper figures of one kind or another, mostly Watson of Alexander Graham Bell and the invention of the telephone and Watson, Sherlock Holme's famous sidekick.

And then I was like, hmm, that's a curious thing to write about. But I didn't really know what to do with it until the "Jeopardy!" tournament in 2011. And then I was like, oh, that is a really interesting helper Watson. That opens up a question for me.

FLATOW: And that's interesting because in the play one of the characters talks about we Watsons don't get enough recognition. You know, our bosses would be nowhere without we helpers.

GEORGE: Right. That's right. That's the Thomas A. Watson.


GEORGE: That's the - Alexander Graham Bell's assistant who says that.

FLATOW: Yeah. Because, as you know, because I'm sure you studied the history, he built everything.

GEORGE: He did.

FLATOW: He talks about it in the play.

GEORGE: Right. Exactly. I made up the number 214 prototypes, which is not an accurate number but he did, in fact, use his own two hands to build all of the different experimental versions of the telephone that ultimately led to the tool we use today.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you talk about in the play how Alexander Graham Bell's Watson insisted that Graham Bell's quote was misremembered.

GEORGE: Right. I mean, in fact, that is a little bit of a dramatic license on my part, though it is the case that we're not exactly sure what Alexander Graham Bell called out to his assistant on that wire. Some people have it as: Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you. Mr. Watson, come here. I want you. Mr. Watson, come here. I need you.

Even Watson himself, the assistant, was a little unclear in the years that went by about what he had actually heard. But anyway, we know that it was some kind of cry of need.

FLATOW: Because he spilled some battery acid or something, right?

GEORGE: The legend, anyway, is that he spilled this acidulated water onto his shirt.

FLATOW: Right.

GEORGE: Right.

FLATOW: And so would you cry out Watson, come here; I need you? Or Watson, get the heck over here?


GEORGE: Exactly.

FLATOW: You know, that sort of thing. Yeah.

GEORGE: One way or the other. In the play I use it as a way for this assistant Watson to make a point about how specifically it was him that was needed and not just some sort of generalized assistant. It's the way that he comes to feel important in the story.

FLATOW: Yeah. And you talk about the role, fictionally, can we make a Watson that really could be a companion?


FLATOW: And understand and be taught how to be sort of human.

GEORGE: Right. I mean, it's interesting because though IBM's Watson, this supercomputer, is - so far surpasses our minds in terms of what it can know and the kinds of questions it can answer and how rapidly. But I wonder how - I wonder how useful a device like that can be to us as a companion, per se. Certainly as a helper that can know things and help us solve problems.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Now, you were surrounded by science as a child.

GEORGE: I was, in fact. My dad is a scientist.

FLATOW: Did it rub off at all, do you think?

GEORGE: It's interesting. I mean, I guess the part of the scientific process that I'm sort of interested in, in this play at least, is the way that the human relationships kind of dovetail with the problem solving that they're doing scientifically. I think maybe that's what a playwright raised by a scientist does, is try to think about the human dimension of the scientific, or technological, inquiry that people are engaged in.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Because one of your Watsons is sort of a - is a robot that the character is trying to perfect.

GEORGE: Right. Exactly. So in my story...


GEORGE: ...the character of Eliza is a computer scientist and she has kind of, like, lifted some of IBM's technology from a job that she used to have there and taken it off and embedded it in a sociable robot. Which is not necessarily what IBM is planning to do. But it's interesting to me to imagine the mind of the Watson computer inside a device that can interact socially and emotionally with people.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Talking about the Watsons with Madeleine George. Running through the play is sort of a suspicion of technology. You're sort of suspicious about...

GEORGE: You mean I, personally?

FLATOW: Well, not - well, the characters. I'm saying you as the playwright.


FLATOW: Is suspicious of how much we should depend on technology.

GEORGE: Maybe I would say skeptical or...

FLATOW: Skeptical? OK.

GEORGE: ...questioning rather than suspicious. I mean, I'm curious, right, and I'm drawn to the ways in which we are looking to technology to try to supplement our relationships. But I am, I guess - I guess I'm a little concerned that the fact of the matter is that relationships are complicated and difficult and challenging and we're so used to at this moment trying to solve our complicated and difficult and challenging problems with technology that we might try to use technology to solve our relationship problems.

And that might be very damaging to what makes us most human.

FLATOW: Yeah. Also, I - I also thought, because I picked up in one part of the play - now, I mean, I have you right here. I can just ask you about it.

GEORGE: You can.

FLATOW: One of your characters made his fame and fortune as the inventor of a specialized piston. Right? To be used in machines.

GEORGE: Yeah. I mean, this is wholly fictional as it was.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. Well, but I'm using it as a - well, the point I'm trying to make is that he also takes this piston and puts it in a pistol.


FLATOW: A gun.


FLATOW: To me that says you can do good with it or you can do bad with the technology.

GEORGE: With technology.


GEORGE: Yeah, sure. Well, and also, the other thing that I'm interested in, in the gun that this character of Merrick has built in this fictional scenario is that he - when he looks at the gun he sees it as a device that brings people close together and it keeps people apart. So he imagines that this gun, by shooting a bullet further than any gun previously was able to now that he's enhanced it with this new piston technology, that it brings adversaries together.

But of course, it's not as intimate as beating somebody over the head with your own fists. And that to me is sort of an interesting metaphor for all tools. You know, that's what tools do. They create a bridge between a person and the things they're trying to touch. And they also make a separation by their very nature. And so to me the telephone does the same thing in a very interesting way.

And certainly we feel that, I think, around us all the time now.


GEORGE: How far apart we are and yet close together with our phones.

FLATOW: And how dependent we have become on them.

GEORGE: And then by extension, once those things...


GEORGE: ...become almost integrated into our bodies. Now we have this very complicated zone between each other - between ourselves and each other that's mediated by these tools.

FLATOW: In fact, one of your characters, a guy named Merrick, complains that he's totally dependent on his computer.

GEORGE: Right. I mean, the play is sort of...

FLATOW: He has no idea how it works. Right?

GEORGE: Right. Right. He realizes - this is in an early scene when he's bringing a fictional Watson who is an IT guy in to help him with his computer, he realizes that once his computer goes down he's done, he's toast.

FLATOW: Right.

GEORGE: He doesn't have access to his bank account. He can't get to his email. And, I mean, I assume this is a common experience for a lot of us. We really realize that the tininess of the mechanisms inside these devices and their complexity makes them unfathomable to us. They're like as complicated and confusing as faraway galaxies to most people.

FLATOW: And yet we depend so much on something we cannot understand.

GEORGE: Exactly. And yet they're right in our pocket and we interact with them constantly.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What's your message about that?

GEORGE: I would say that rather - it's not a message so much as a kind of an attempt to refresh our vision about it. I mean, I feel like this is something that's - if we just unquestioningly allow ourselves to merge with these technologies and we don't think about what impact it might have on our daily lives and it might do to our relationships, that's not good.

FLATOW: Now, I'm sure you hang out with other playwrights.

GEORGE: I do, in fact.

FLATOW: Do they talk about this as fertile ground? Our new society and high technology and social communities and how we, you know, writing about how we're dealing with this or the raising questions about it?

GEORGE: Yeah. I think writers of all kinds are interested in this. I mean, this is a ubiquitous phenomenon in all of our lives now. Some playwrights are really interested in merging technology into their theater.

FLATOW: Such as?

GEORGE: I'm trying to think of examples.

FLATOW: In what ways? You mean like 3D or something?

GEORGE: They're using video technology, for example.

FLATOW: Right.

GEORGE: Or also like more and more - I mean, I recently saw a very interesting production that actually came from outside the United States at BAM and it was...

FLATOW: That's Brooklyn Academy of Music.

GEORGE: At Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was, well, the audience was encouraged to tweet during the performance.

FLATOW: Is that right?

GEORGE: And the performance itself was sort of immersive and there were screens all over the place and we were watching parts of it happen in different places. That's fascinating to me and amazing. Although I have to admit it's not really my métier. I'm much happier to take the brilliant John Ellison Conlee, who is an actor, and have him in human body portray a machine.

FLATOW: He was terrific.

GEORGE: He's great, isn't he?

FLATOW: He was terrific. And I - one of these actors you say and I've seen him someplace before.

GEORGE: I know. Yeah.

FLATOW: In other places.

GEORGE: Well, you have. Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. Now, you did visit IBM, right?

GEORGE: I did.

FLATOW: Did you see the real Watson, the computer Watson?

GEORGE: We did. We were not only lucky enough to meet a number of the computer scientists who were the designers and builders of Watson but also, I don't know if they would allow us to use the word meet for our encounter with the machine.


GEORGE: A little anthropomorphic but we did.

FLATOW: A mind meld.

GEORGE: Exactly. We beheld the machine. We stood quite near it. In fact, we walked into it. It was unbelievable. It was extraordinary.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. Did it influence you how you would write?

GEORGE: You know, more - besides just being dazzled by the scope and the beauty and the breathtaking complexity of the machine, I was really interested to talk to a number of the computer scientists who had worked on the machine for so long and ask them questions about their philosophical relation to the work.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

GEORGE: And also how they felt about Watson. And they were quite candid about saying things like I love Watson. Or Watson is just like another child to me, or something. That - I felt hardened by it because I know how easy it is for people who are not specialists to fall in a kind of love with our machines.


GEORGE: And I was glad to see that they also were susceptible to those human feelings.

FLATOW: Does Watson have a face or shake a hand? Or what is Watson --- what does he look it?

GEORGE: Do you mean up at the headquarters?


GEORGE: Well, they have very - I think very intelligently they have a sort of beautiful, shiny, swirling avatar in front of the room full of processing cores where the "brain," quote/unquote is. And, you know, it's that beautiful - it's an image of the world with these thought arrows shooting around.

FLATOW: Right. Right.

GEORGE: It's just enough of a kind of creature that you feel like you can sort of behold it and relate to it but it's not too much like a person.

FLATOW: I'm talking with Madeleine George who is a playwright and author of "The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence" playing now.

GEORGE: Playing now at Playwright's Horizons.

FLATOW: For how long?

GEORGE: Until December 29th.

FLATOW: Think you could get an extension?

GEORGE: I don't know. We'll see. I don't know.

FLATOW: Take it around the country. You know, we have a...

GEORGE: Take it around the country.

FLATOW: We have a lot of authors and playwrights come, you know, come through and they have plays and they just don't leave. We want - we want to give them life to go other places.

GEORGE: Oh, I'd love that idea. There's only three actors, even though there's nine characters in my play so hopefully it makes it quite portable.

FLATOW: All right. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I am Ira Flatow talking with playwright Madeleine George, author of "The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence." Let's go to the phones because some folks have some interesting questions. Let's go to Matt in Rome, New York. Hi, Matt.

MATT: Hi. Madeleine, I heard the name of these characters in the play that's working on Watson, Eliza, and I was wondering if that was some sort of reference to the early Eliza chatbot which was supposed to be like an AI to trick people with, MIT had worked out.

GEORGE: Absolutely. That's very astute. Yeah. I was - you're referring to the early therapist bot designed by Joseph Weizenbaum, I think, at MIT. That program was a very simple natural language processing program that used just a teletype and not a voice. And it was designed to simulate a therapist and ask questions in response to your own questions.

I actually played with a version of that program as a child and...

MATT: Yes, so did I.

GEORGE: Did you? Did she make you feel better?

MATT: I recall (unintelligible) Eliza — in early elementary school when we first had our first computer.

GEORGE: In your school?

MATT: Yes.

GEORGE: How extraordinary.

MATT: They were a progressive school in the early '90s.

GEORGE: Wow. I was interested in Eliza for a couple of reasons. One, because that name also has a sort of theatrical resonance since Weizenbaum chose the name Eliza based on Eliza Doolittle from...

FLATOW: I was going to say, sure.

GEORGE: ..."My Fair Lady."


GEORGE: But also because he himself became a critic of AI later on and really was also concerned about what people's sort of seductive relationship to that chatbot, what it augured for the future of our relationship with machines.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to Ben in Tempe, Arizona. Hi, Ben. Welcome.

BEN: Hey. Thanks for having me on.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

BEN: So I've noticed personally by reading the Iron Man comics and seeing the movies and the whatnot, now I think there's a lot of similarity between Tony Stark, who's Iron Man, and Sherlock Holmes. And Tony has developed an AI, Jarvis, which is much like his Watson. And I was wondering if you were familiar with that, what sort of interesting parallels you see with that. Because Tony Stark is responsible for creating Jarvis and basically acting the same way as a counterpoint to a lot of these Watsons.

GEORGE: Wow. That's so cool. I have to confess total ignorance around Iron Man, which I feel very terrible about at this moment.

BEN: Oh, no.

GEORGE: I know. I'm sorry about that.

FLATOW: But the wheels are turning in her head.

GEORGE: It's true.

FLATOW: I can see them sitting right here.

BEN: Just get lost in Wikipedia for the next couple of hours after this.

GEORGE: How — yeah. And Netflix. And that's fantastic.

BEN: Yes, definitely.

GEORGE: I feel like that's so interesting to think about designing an AI Watson instead of the other way around as I have it in this play. That's really cool.

FLATOW: And what do you think, Ben, about that relationship?

BEN: Well, I find it very charming because I sometimes thought that maybe you could almost read Watson as just another part of Sherlock Holmes' personality that he kind of suppresses a lot. And that's very true because Tony Stark is a flawed character and the whatnot. Very reckless.


BEN: He has to have some caution and here he actually created dissentions that is his caution.

FLATOW: Interesting.

BEN: Rather than playing it out in his head.


GEORGE: That's very cool.

FLATOW: Yeah. Thanks for calling, Ben. Yeah. Watson, as we say, was always the second person.

GEORGE: Right. I mean, I think of Watson as...

FLATOW: Confidant.

GEORGE: ...our entry point into those Sherlock Holmes stories. You know, he's like us in those stories.

FLATOW: Well, he's supposedly telling - excuse me - telling the story. Right?

GEORGE: Right. Absolutely. And he also has - he has the combination of credulousness and warmth that we would, I think, that is more like our role in those stories.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do you think you'll have a follow-up to this?

GEORGE: You mean in terms of the same contents?

FLATOW: Yes. Same kind of idea.

GEORGE: I'm not sure. I mean, I've been very interested in plays that use a single actor to play multiple different roles, sometimes multiple roles including animals, and roles including superhuman figures. And I wonder if this doesn't sort of exhaust it for me.


GEORGE: To finally go through every part of this one kind of Watson figure, as fractured as he is.

FLATOW: Well, it's interesting how all four of them came together.


FLATOW: You know, they just - you united them very well.

GEORGE: Oh, thanks. I'm glad.

FLATOW: And it was quite an interesting play. And I wish you good luck with the play.

GEORGE: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: We hope it gets more life after this short run here.

GEORGE: Thanks a lot.

FLATOW: We're talking with Madeleine George who is the playwright of "The Curious Case for the Watson Intelligence." It just had its world premiere off Broadway and if you can catch it before it closes, I suggest you do so. Maybe if you're here in New York for the holidays. It's at the...

GEORGE: It's at Playwright's Horizons on 42nd Street.

FLATOW: There you go. Thanks again for coming.

GEORGE: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.