Star Trek A ‘Driving Vision’ For IBM’s Jeopardy Winning Computer Watson

This week the big news in computers is Watson, IBM’s new supercomputer that took on the champions of Jeopardy, and won. And it turns out that this revolutionary new technology is yet another giant leap inspired by Star Trek. Details below.


Star Trek a ‘driving vision’ for IBM’s Watson

This week the popular TV game show Jeopardy ran a 3-day special where the two biggest Jeopardy champions took on Watson, an IBM computer built to play the game. In the end it turned out just like famed 1997 chess match when IBM’s Deep Blue beat grandmaster Garry Kasparov. Watson racked up a two-day total of $77,147 vs. Brad Rutter’s $21,600 and Ken Jennings $24,000. Here is the final segment of the 3-day special, where Watson destroys all humans.

So should we, like Ken Jennings, get ready to welcome our new computer overlords? Science fiction is full of tales of AIs going crazy or seeking to wipe out or enslave humanity. However, IBM looks to a more benign vision of future computer/human interaction, namely the one seen in Star Trek. A FAQ about Watson and the DeepQA project on the official IBM site states:

Q: Is this going to be like HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey"?
A: Not exactly. The computer on Star Trek is a more appropriate comparison. The fictional computer system may be viewed as an interactive dialog agent that could answer questions and provide precise information on any topic. A primary goal for DeepQA is to greatly improve information seeking tasks over natural language content but ultimately, we would like to see the underlying technology help make computers more effective at communicating in human terms. Watson uses the DeepQA technology to push the envelope in natural language processing and automatic question answering. A powerful and fluent conversational agent, like the Star Trek computer, is a driving vision for this work.

And in an interview about the Jeopardy project, IBM’s David Ferrucci (principal investigator for the DeepQA project) talked about Watson and how Star Trek shows the way:

Q: How do you see the Watson technology evolving and being used in other fields in the next 5 to 10 years? What are some other possible applications of this technology?

David Ferrucci: Whether it be in healthcare, medicine, technical support, finance, or government, the ability to sift through and more deeply analyze all this information and deliver it on an as-needed basis I think can really be dramatic. When you think about the Star Trek series, Captain Picard or Captain Kirk just speaking to the computer and the computer immediately has a sense of what’s the context, what is he asking me about, what are my follow-up questions, how to behave as an information-seeking tool that helps this person get at what they need rapidly through a natural language dialogue in their terms. So the user doesn’t have to figure out what the right query is. Rather the user can just start dialoguing with the computer in its own terms, in natural language, and that, I think, can ultimately have huge impact on business and society.

The real story of Watson is all about that Star Trek-like interaction, and developing a computer that can understand "natural conversation" as this IBM video explains.

Star Trek’s vision of peaceful co-existence with Computer AI

Since the beginning of Star Trek in the 1960s, the franchise has posited a future with intelligent computers interacting peacefully with their human masters. Of course Trek has had its share of cautionary tales of these computers going awry and becoming a danger, such as in the original Star Trek episode "The Ultimate Computer" seen in this clip. 

However, these Star Trek computer-as-Frankenstein stories are the exception. For the most part, Star Trek through all five series and eleven movies has shown us a future where humans (and aliens) work side-by-side with computers and artificial intelligences. Although some times Star Trek’s computers did get a little frisky, as when the USS Enterprise computer got flirty in the original Star Trek episode "Tomorrow is Yesterday".

And of course, Star Trek: The Next Generation showed how it can take some teaching of AIs to understand natural language, and not take things so literally as this flashback sequence shows from the series finale.

But all in all the Star Trek AIs understand and are able to interact with the crew, answering queries and talking to the crew in natural language. Sometimes the AIs even talked to each other, as this scene from Star Trek: The Next Generation shows with Data talking to the USS Enterprise-D computer.

So Watson is a big step towards that future where we can have conversations with our computers and where they can understand us in natural language, answering nuanced queries while tapping into all of human understanding. Plus, few would be able to afford a Watson of their own, which requires a big room full of high-end IBM servers. So for now, we will continue to have to toil away on our "quaint" keyboard and mouse, just as Scotty found them when he traveled back in time to the 1980’s in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

For more on Watson visit

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

“Watson, come here! I need you!”

Hey look, remember, I was the one who asked this site who would win in Jeopardy between, Spock, Data and IBM Watson :)

I love the Apple clip from Star Trek IV!!!

I would love to fast forward to the days in the not-so-distant future when we can speak naturally to our computers… though something tells me we’ll still be typing. I can’t quite picture myself saying, “show me pictures of ‘wild spring break topless teens'” [not that that’s what I search for ;-) ].

^ aloud, to my computer, that is.

Next Jeopardy should be Watson vs. The Shat. He was always good with computer repair *cough NomadM5LandruVaal cough*….

As to the clip of Watson, it’s interesting to scrutinize the answers — or should I say questions — it gave incorrectly…. [scrutinizing]

Computers are fast growing and getting more and more advanced. I choose to see the growth as Trek as well and not as Cylons or Termanators or Hal. Just think about 10 years ago we were just getting into home computers and lap tops. 10 years from now who knows. Lap tops will have more Gigs then the best home systems today and the I Padds will be carried around like Cell Phones and Cell Phones will all be small computers with 8g memory or better.

The clip of Data getting told by Enterprise D cpu that it comprehends ie. stfu lolowned

Eagle Eye by orci and k was pretty interesting also

“Elementary, Dear Watson!”

Anyway, I for one welcome our new computer overlords. I’d be very useful in rounding up drones….err….people to carry out the will of the machines.

Eagle Eye was a lot of fun to work on as a background extra.

They really should have had a virtual face on the screen. The stupid graphic was boring. The show was boring. It was a given the computer was going to win. Nothing but a big commercial for IBM. They could have at least given Watson a human face. Would have been totally cool.

Major fail.

Interesting. I’m a little puzzled why you say that potentially dangerous AIs are the “exception” on ST. In the original series at least, there were half a dozen shows explicitly premised on AIs run amok, including “The Apple”, “For the World is Hollow…”, “The Changeling”, “I Mudd”, “Return of the Archons”, etc.. On the other hand, I never really took the Enterprise computer to be intelligent in the sense of HAL–it’s just a reference tool. If that’s as far as we ever get in AI, just answering questions, that’s pretty disappointing.

Looks like they’ve been igniting the midnight petroleum over at IBM.
Keep up the good work, boys and girls.

Are you guys really sure you want HAL? Yes, he was intelligent… but he also… ahem, *cough-cough* murdered people!

Careful what you wish for.

Hello Computer…

Yeah, all those Star Trek analogies are nice and happy, but I’m thinking about other TV series here: Battlestar Galactica, the reimagined one.

“All this has happened before and it will happen again.”


Just look at how the human race turned out ;)

All creations will choose a path of good or evil, the result of free will and choice.

Some machines/AI will choose to be good and others will choose to be evil, like all things in the universe.

Now if IBM can program Watson to play Poker, I am sure Phil Ivey can whoop him, Ivey will eat Watson alive, back to the library Watson!

Hey. What about the Computer Rock from Airplane 2. He was bad. He Killed 2 Pilots and Gased another. He also set the Shuttle on a course for the Sun. If it was not for Ted Striker taking the Shuttle to 0.5 Warp with Help from Buck Murdoc ( I mean. Buck Murdock! on moon base Alpha they would have all been Killed.

Good morning, Dave.

How quaint

Good Morning Chris.

As long as they’re only playing chess or Jeopardy, fine….just don’t give them access to our nuclear stockpile, like Forbin’s Collossus ;-)

Awesome Anthony, thanks for this!!!

@22 Ha ha! Glad you’re with us!

#24. That was a good movie. The way it and the other one from the Soviet Union took over the worlds Nuclear Weapons. So Kool.

#13 – IMO, that would have been creepy.

6. CarlG – “Next Jeopardy should be Watson vs. The Shat.” Shat would sneak in before the show and re-program Watson.

@14-You forgot the most glaring example “The Ultimate Computer”.

remember the movie war games?

Commodore Mike, ist sie Deutsch? You capitalize all your nouns like you’re more used to writing in German. Not a criticism, just a question!

Good article Anthony, but why show all theses clips that are the exception to the point that IBM is trying to make? I would have included clips showing the standard problem solving abilities of the main ships computer instead — that would have fit better with your story here as that was the point of IBM in relating Watson to Star Trek. Just IMHO. But cool story — thanks!


When you build a super computer that can listen to human speech, understand the question, then answer it without human intervention go ahead and put a face on it. Until you can do something close to that, I suggest you shush yourself.

You’re the major fail.

Barron. Just my crazy way of writting. Im not the best writter in this bunch. But I do have access to the Agoniser Booth.

8. Uh, ten years ago? That would be 2001. Home computers have been around since the Apple II, etc. around 1977. My first home computer was a TRS-80 Color Computer in 1983. Laptops aren’t much newer (they were bigger and clumsier, but they were around in the 80s.)

8.>Just think about 10 years ago we were just getting into home computers >and lap tops.

I have personal computers since 1984, from Apples to MSX to PCs!
Learn your history kiddo!

Wow, that is amazing. I’m glad to see that someone out there is still willing to push the boundaries of what’s possible. More companies need to be like IBM and test themselves against the most difficult challenges possible, not merely put out a product that is “good enough”. I for one may not welcome our new computer overlords, but I give mad props to IBM for building one hell of a machine

Open the toilet door, Hal.

Watson is an amazing accomplishment.

#36 and #37. Ok. I should have said 20 years. Most People did not get home Computers till about 1991 and then it started rising. I did not know anyone in 1990 that had a Home Computer. Maybe in the Bigger Citys that did happen. So. I am sorry I was off on my Years. For that. I will now enter the Agoniser Booth for a time of no less then 10 hours set on high. But you guys get to come with me for being to smart.

@13 “They really should have had a virtual face on the screen. The stupid graphic was boring. The show was boring. It was a given the computer was going to win. Nothing but a big commercial for IBM. They could have at least given Watson a human face. Would have been totally cool. Major fail.”

@ 34 (in response to @13): “You’re the major fail.”

SChaos1701, I agree with you completely. That comment above (@13) is perhaps the most meaningless comment I have seen on these boards in the past several years…very disappointing to see someone react that way. Brings to mind a relevant famous quote:

“Before we work on artificial intelligence why don’t we do something about natural stupidity? ~Steve Polyak”

Watson wins Jeopardy. So, when can he (she?) have sex?

40… Nope, wrong again. Look up your name sake “Commodore” some time. The Commodore 64 came out in 1982 and is still the best selling computer ever built (perhaps 17 million were sold, the vast majority between 1982 and 1986 by which time it was showing its age against the Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, and Apple //GS.) The famous Mac “1984” commercial (“the computer for the rest of us”) was aired during the 1984 Super Bowl. The IBM-PC debuted in 1981 (it celebrates its 30th birthday this year.) TIME Magazine’s “Man of the Year” for 1983 was the Computer (the cover story read “The Computer Moves In.”)

One more hour in the Agony Booth for you!

Guys, remember the Osborne computer? My dad gave me one in 1982 as my high school graduation present, and I used it all through college. I wish I had kept it, as it would be a neat conversation piece today.

Chiming in on the home computer history thread:

Thorny and Victor Hugo are right, Commodore. I had an IBM PC “clone” (i.e. some other brand) in my house in 1986. My parents used it to write articles but they were not by any stretch of the imagination wealthy or tech-gadget inclined — academic, but not “special”. Back then, it was all MS-DOS, all the time. I played the original Tetris on it, woo hoo! By *1989* they had a “laptop” as well — a beast that you wouldn’t want on your lap, to be sure, but compact enough to be carried from room to room easily. A silver-text-on-blue LCD screen, running MS-DOS, it was also just good enough for me to write many of my essays and papers in high school.

So, even in the case of laptops, we’re talking 22 years.

The first computer I ever used was my aunt’s Apple II+ in 1979 or ’80. She was a junior high math teacher and an early adopter, but its not like she built the system herself from mail order, she bought it at an Apple dealer in Orlando. I got my own computer, a Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer in 1982. The CoCo was a decent little computer, but at that time it seemed like everyone else had a Commodore 64. I remember spending hours typing in programs from Rainbow Magazine and saving them to a Realistic tape recorder that was fickle at best. I decided fairly quickly to save up and buy a dual-deck 5 1/4″ floppy drive for my TRS-80. My next computer was a Commodore Amiga 1000 in late 1985. That machine blew everything else out of the water at the time, even the Mac (which still offered only a black-and-white display.) Atari ST was good, but never escaped its parent company’s video game reputation. Commodore, Radio Shack, Atari, and non-Mac Apple all faded in the late 1980s and early 1990s as Soundblaster and VGA cards began to make PCs more technologically competitive and Windows actually became sorta half-way decent (at least it was no longer the laughing stock of the industry.) When Commodore folded in 1994-95, I switched to Windows, since I really didn’t see much future in Mac (yes, there was a time when Apple was financially at death’s door, and it wasn’t all that long ago.)

My first computer was a 1993 Packard Bell. Oh man, a wristwatch had more memory! But hey, at least it was juuust enough to play Star Wars: X-Wing. Anyone else remember that game?

Um, guys did you see Watson’s graphic at 7:24 of Jeopardy? It looks like the world. Is that hint, Watson? Global domination? :-) Okay, it’s the symbol for People for a Smarter Planet but… could it be a front for our computer overlords? :-)

@ 47 Vultan

X-Wing was one of the first great games for Lucas Arts. I remember going down the trench on the Death Star and directing power to my front shields.

Okay, Watson let’s see if you can play jazz.

Here’s the great alto saxophonist Charlie Parker playing “All the Things You Are.” I would like to see if you can improvise and play with soul.