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Jim Kershner: Computer’s perfection no match for the human touch

Sat., Feb. 26, 2011

After hearing about the “Jeopardy” victory of Watson, the IBM supercomputer, I decided to stage a head-to-head contest of my own against Watson.

“Hey, Watson,” I said, to this big-headed computer. “You looked pretty smart in that TV game-show trivia contest. But how do you think you’ll do in real-life situations? What do you say?”

Watson replied, “What is ‘Bring it on, pal’?”

(Apparently he was still programmed for “Jeopardy.”)

So Watson and I engaged in three everyday tasks – simple activities that I happened to be doing that day.

First, there were my income taxes. I went first.

I organized them in my usual way. I took out a file stuffed with receipts for things like “One pint of Kilt Lifter ale” and “one Titleist wedge” – and I spread them out on the kitchen table.

Then I stood back and frowned at them for two minutes. Then I looked closely at the receipts and noted that they were all dated 2007.

I swept them all back into their file and looked for the file dated 2010. I couldn’t find it. So I decided to check the box on my tax preparation worksheet that said, “To hell with it. I’ll just take the Standard Deduction.”

Then it was Watson’s turn. Watson immediately launched a search of my debit card and credit card transactions, organized them into categories, calculated the results, and saved me $3,000 in taxes. It took the brainy little showoff 1.7 seconds.

First round to Watson.

Next, I decided to engage in a more subtle and difficult task: planning a trip to a family wedding in Florida.

I went first. I got online and checked out Hotwire, Kayak, Travelocity and I looked on Quickbook and Priceline. I checked because I knew Southwest doesn’t show up on most airfare searches.

Ha. Bet you didn’t know that, Watson.

So I ended up with an itinerary that required us to drive to Seattle, rent an airport hotel room, wake up at 4:30 a.m., take a plane to Chicago, camp at Midway for six hours, take another plane, stop in Memphis and finally land at 8 p.m., but not in Tallahassee, where the wedding takes place, but at an airport 90 miles away, requiring us to rent a car. Total cost: $1,200 each.

Then it was Watson’s turn. Watson launched a complicated algorithm that minimized air time and searched for the most efficient and economical hotel and car rental deals. Total cost: $600 each, and we would land in the actual wedding city.

Second round to Watson.

I was feeling dejected. This third task was going to be even harder for me to win: Organizing a nice birthday for my wife, Carol.

I started botching it right at the beginning. I went to Boo Radley’s downtown and couldn’t decide among four birthday cards. After a half hour of waffling, I bought all four. One of them featured a picture of a Sock Monkey being ill.

Then I went home and started making my wife’s traditional birthday treat, a Black Forest Cherry Cake. I cheated and used a mix. Then I cheated even more and slathered the entire thing with Cool Whip instead of whipping cream. Then I ran out of Cool Whip before it was completely covered, and I didn’t have time to get more. The finished cake had a 3-inch brown stripe on one side. It leaned alarmingly to the left. Most of the cherries fell off the top, leaving dark red stains in the Cool Whip. I tried to rearrange the cherries to write the word “Carol,” but it ended up looking like “Crab.”

Then it was Watson’s turn. Watson found the perfect card, with the appropriate “warm birthday wishes” sentiment. Watson then found a bakery that specialized in Black Forest cakes. Watson arranged to have an exquisite, perfect specimen, covered with chocolate curls, delivered exactly at dessert time. “Carol” was written in chocolate calligraphy.

Third round to – whom? You lose, Watson!

Four birthday cards made her four times as happy as one. The Sock Monkey made her laugh. My cake was a little sad-looking, but it still tasted like chocolate and cherries – and it wasn’t shipped from some out-of-town bakery. Apparently, it means something when a human being takes the time to make someone a birthday cake.

The final verdict: Watson’s good at perfection, but lousy at something far more valuable, heartfelt imperfection. Only humans can pull that off.

Reach Jim Kershner at or (509) 459-5493. Read previous columns at

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