There are many accounts of the genesis of Watson. The most popular, which is not necessarily the most accurate--and this is the sort of problem that Watson himself often stumbled on--begins in 2004, at a steakhouse near Poughkeepsie. One evening, an I.B.M. executive named Charles Lickel was having dinner there when he noticed that the tables around him had suddenly emptied out. Instead of finishing their sirloins, his fellow-diners had rushed to the bar to watch "Jeopardy!" This was deep into Ken Jennings's seventy-four-game winning streak, and the crowd around the TV was rapt.
The first time I met Alexa, the A.I. robot voice inside the wine-bottle-size speaker known as the Amazon Echo, I was at my friends' house, in rural New England. "Currently, it is seventy-five degrees," she told us, and assured us that it would not rain. This was a year ago, and I'd never encountered a talking speaker before. She's in cahoots with a sensor in their driveway.) When I razzed my friend for his love of gadgetry, he showed me some of Alexa's other tricks: telling us the weather, keeping a shopping list, ordering products from Amazon.
Sundar Pichai made a bold statement in a letter to shareholders. After describing the evolution of computers since the nineties, from hulking desktop machines to petite portable devices, he wrote, "Looking to the future, the next big step will be for the very concept of the'device' to fade away." His point was that, because computing technology is becoming smaller and more powerful, computers can be built in all kinds of forms. Building devices is no longer hard. The difficult part--and the part that will distinguish products from one another--is the experience that computers facilitate.