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View transcript

And the winner is...a robot named Watson!.

And the winner is...a robot named Watson!

Imagine the scene. The snow outside is 3ft deep and traffic is at a standstill. But inside the office an army of robots is wandering the corridors, 'chatting' one-to-one or holding meetings just like a human workforce.

Each robot's face is a video screen and its single eye is a video camera. Its base has headlights and sensors to alert it to obstacles. And as it moves about the office, it is the mechanical presence of an employee stuck at home or in some far-away airport or railway station because of the weather.

The technology for such a scenario already exists. In the February 2011 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, Bennett describes how the electrical engineer of a small boiler-manufacturing firm in Clear Brook, Virginia, is just a telepresence around the company after he had to move to the Dominican Republic when his wife's job was transferred there.

At first he 'attended' meetings at the office through Skype. When he needed to see something on the shop floor, a colleague would carry around the laptop he was connected to and point the webcam where asked.

Now, as a robot, the electrical engineer can 'move from desk to desk and around the shop floor, answering questions and inspecting designs, often using the robot's photo feature to examine wiring in detail'.

Employees have even come to think of the robot as the electrical engineer himself. Bennett reports the company's president as saying: 'You are hearing his voice, you are seeing his face through the video, you have got movement involved. After a while, it is not a robot anymore.'

However real the telepresence robots may seem, they are not speaking for themselves; they only ever vocalise the thoughts of the human being behind the robotic presence. But scientists in the artificial-intelligence branch of computer science are working on ever-more-effective question-answering machines, able to understand a question posed by a human being and respond with a precise factual answer.

Until recently, these computers have been able to 'answer' only simply-phrased questions. But, in the February 2011 Issue of the Financial Times, Waters describes how an IBM supercomputer named Watson has taken on human contestants on the TV game show Jeopardy - and won.

Watson is not connected to the internet, but itself stores the content of tens of millions of documents. For the TV show, the computer received the questions as electronic texts at the same time they were made visible to the human players. In a machine-synthesized voice, it answered questions ranging from cinema and literature to technology and science.

Waters points out that the ability of the artificial-intelligence system to play the TV game effectively demonstrates the progress of computers both to recognize natural language and to match answers to particular questions. While Waters concedes that this major leap in the capacity of artificial intelligence has the capacity to be the seed for a new class of computer systems, the author underlines that artificial-intelligence systems are still a long way from being able to mimic human thought processes.

Fortunately for us all, the Skynet computer system in the Terminator movies that achieves consciousness and decides that humanity should be destroyed is still firmly the stuff of science fiction.