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Ted Hurlbut

Principal
Hurlbut & Associates

Watson on Jeopardy

March 16, 2012

I’m a bit of a Jeopardy Junkie (when neither the Red Sox or Bruins are on), and so I eagerly looked forward to the three-day contest pitting the IBM computer Watson against Jeopardy’s two greatest champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

When the match ended, with Watson wiping the floor of its temperature-controlled computer room with its two all-too-human competitors, I was left vaguely unsettled. As Jennings wrote, “I envisioned myself as the Great Carbon-Based Hope against a new generation of thinking machines—which, if Hollywood is to be believed, will inevitably run amok, build unstoppable robot shells, and destroy us all.”

I’m certainly not ready to buy into whatever apocalyptic vision Hollywood might come up with in the wake of Watson’s victory, but that doesn’t make me anymore comfortable with the thought of what IBM might have in mind.

As IBM suggests, innocently enough, “Watson combines major advances in deep analytics and system design into a solution with the possibility to transform entire industries.”

In the midst of a second straight jobless recovery, feeling like the lost decade that everybody fears might just have been the last decade, and feeling like 21st century capitalism might be ultimately little more than high rollers playing the odds on Wall Street, the idea of “transforming whole industries” doesn’t seem so innocent.

I’m no more immune than anybody else to that nagging thought that something’s out of kilter with our free-market system, but I can no more put my finger on it than anybody else. Here’s what I have come up with, though. In capitalism’s on-going “creative destruction”, technology is destroying jobs faster than capitalism can create them, and the pace of technological innovation isn’t slowing down. Just ask Watson. “I’ll take Technological Innovation for $1000, Alex.”

So where does this leave us mere humans? Obviously, like Ken and Brad, we’ve got to figure out how to be quicker on the trigger finger than Watson. Relentless innovation, innovate or perish.

I’ll be meeting soon with a potential new client who is concerned that his retail concept is outmoded and outdated. My guess is that if he’s asking himself this question he’s probably at least a couple of iterations behind the curve. Retailing is no different than any other industry, nor is independent retailing in any way sheltered from these basic facts of life. The future belongs to the innovative. Relentless innovation. Innovate or perish.

“Can I have Retail Innovation for $2000, Alex?”

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