Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why is Watson a 'he'?

So there was an article recently about how Watson was moving beyond jeopardy and going into medicine.

Throughout the article, Watson is referred to with male pronouns. Personally, I always refer to computers as, 'it'. To do otherwise is just feels strange to me. It would be like giving my lettuce gender. "My, he's very crispy tonight."

What I found even more strange about the article was how Watson was going to beat "his competitor", another diagnosis engine called Isabel. This machine is referred to with female pronouns, "...but Watson's trainers don't seem to see her as a threat; they say he's already faster and understands more medical terms."

Uh huh.

I've decided from this day forward all my future computers will be named "Pat". That'll learn 'em.


  1. One benign explanation could be that Watson is generally a man's name.

  2. Agreed! My car is an 'it,' I've never understood the reverse. [Much more controversially, I also think some things WITH a sex (such as dogs) are also 'it' -- calling it 'he' or 'she' is IMO too much personification.]

    You reminded me of this article: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3023 . Obvious in retrospect, but the gender-neutral object thing just doesn't work in languages with gendered nouns. Cool to see that languages differ -- sometimes the day is masculine and night feminine, sometimes reversed, etc. And they don't necessarily realize that the language is why.

    So, for a gender-neutral Pat or Casey version of Wastson, we'd also need a gender-neutral voice... I looked through Apple's 'say' and didn't find much. That seems like a much harder problem actually.

    Speech synth people, any ideas/sources? :-)

  3. "My, he's very crispy tonight."

    LOL! Sounds kinda naughty!

    I'm sure referring to the machines with gendered pronouns has to do with Watson being a male and Isabel a female name, and I am sure it's some journalistic rule that people like objects and animals anthropomorphized (makes for a more catchy story or whatever) but I agree, it's still annoying...

  4. I don't mean to be dense, but is Watson actually a male first name? University of Google seems to think that once upon a time it was, meaning son of Walter.

    The US census (http://www.census.gov/genealogy/names/names_files.html) doesn't even have it in it's list of >1200 male first names in the US during the 1990 census.

    When I hear Watson, it conjures a male figure into my head, but that is because the two famous Dr. Watsons I think of (James and John) were both male.

    I agree, that there's "some journalistic rule that people like objects and animals anthropomorphized," but the male pronoun is a little more of a prick in the side now that you've mentioned Isabel.

  5. Well, this probably doesn't apply in this case (because this article is probably not a translation), but in some languages other than English, object nouns do actually have a grammatical gender. E.g. German, Italian, Spanish, etc.

    In German, for example, a computer is "der Rechner" or "der Computer", so to have a grammatically correct sentence, it has to be referred to as "er" (i.e. "he"). I think it is also a male pronoun in Italian and Spanish.

  6. To the best of my knowledge, Watson is a family, rather than first, name in almost all cases. The name does seem to conjure a male figure, but I'd also suspect it's because Doctors John and James Watson are male.

    It should be noted, though, that this Watson is named after the first president of IBM, Thomas J. Watson. That being the case, it seems natural to use a male, rather than female, pronoun.

    Why use a gendered pronoun at all? Well, there are basically three options when a computer bears a name that could be/is shared by a person:

    1) use a gendered pronoun, which is technically incorrect but matches the convention of the language (we wouldn't expect a person to be referred to at 'it', and 'Watson' is first and foremost a people name),

    2) use 'it' which is correct for a computer (in English anyway) but will sound really weird, or

    3) avoid using pronouns, which avoids the above issues but causes other problems with the way the work 'sounds'.

    Of course, the whole issue could be avoided if such systems were only ever given non-name words as designations (e.g. WOPR or Roadrunner), but that makes it a lot harder to name a machine after someone.

  7. that's right, and in fact I think other languages may feel less the urge of a politically correct pronominalisation - in Italian a lettuce is a 'she' btw, a cabbage is a 'he', a carrot a 'she' and a mushroom a 'he' - and a computer is definitely a 'he', while a calculator machine is a 'she' :-P

  8. I can only assume it's because of "his" external genitalia...?

  9. Since we're talking about different languages, in Romanian, some inanimate objects are gendered male, some female, and some neutral. Neutral has male form in the singular, and feminine form in the plural. The generic word for cat is feminine, the generic word for dog is masculine, although if you want to indicate genders you can use gender specific words. A computer is neutral: one computer, two computer-esses. How do you know which is which? No rules, you just need to know the singular and plural forms. I am happy I never had to learn Romanian as a second language.