A Question Watson the Computer Probably Cant Answer

Sam Pizzigati

A spectacular triumph of computing power invites us to think a bit about the work only we humans can do.

The game show Jeopardy! drew record ratings earlier this week as two human former champs on the show squared off against an IBM computer — named “Watson” — designed to understand and answer natural-language questions. Watson won.

Somewhere the original human Watsons, father and son, must be smiling. Thomas Watson founded IBM nearly a century ago. Thomas Jr. took over in 1956. Junior retired 15 years later, then kicked the bucket in 1993, leaving behind a fortune worth $127 million.

And that sum raises a question for Watson the computer: How could the founding family of IBM, after 70 years on easy street, end up with a fortune no bigger than the $127 million IBM CEO Lou Gerstner took home in 2001 for just one year’s labor? Gerstner left IBM in 2002 with a total personal fortune worth $630 million.

Watson the computer may not be able to answer that question. We can. In the mid 20th century, the Watsons and other wealthy faced stiff tax rates, a significant union presence, and a politics that frowned on vast accumulations of private wealth. Modern execs like Gerstner face none of these obstacles.

Could that situation change? In Wisconsin this week many thousands of Americans are shouting an affirmative. They’ve come together to challenge newly elected governor Scott Walker’s brazen attack on labor rights.

Governor Walker, as protestor Kathy Wilkes told one rally Tuesday, is demonizing workers “as the cause of the economic collapse that we know came from Wall Street and the shipping of jobs overseas — instead of talking about the corporate elite and their gargantuan salaries.”

“This,” Wilkes added, “is a class war.”

Computers these days can do a hell of a lot. Class war remains a fully human endeavor.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Read the current issue or sign up to receive Too Much in your email inbox.

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