A hint to answering this question can be found by going to the IBM Research home page and putting in the search term “Deep Blue,” the name of the company’s chess-playing computer that famously beat World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov. The first results take you to what seem to be orphaned Web pages from 1997. Eventually you reach a page that acknowledges that the team has moved on to other projects. So too with the MIT Media Lab Personal Robotics Group which abounds in aspirational descriptions and videos, but seems short on actual results that conform to those aspirations. Has the teddy-bear robot called “Huggable” in fact been turned, as its makers expected, into a communication avatar, an early education companion, or a therapeutic companion? One would be hard-pressed to know.
My guess is that graduate students graduate and funding opportunities change. And some questions get answered, or perhaps not; in either case researchers move on, maybe building on what they have done, maybe moving in a new direction entirely. Doubtless, as in any other kind of research, there are times when the results have a nearly immediate impact in the wider world, or eventually get filtered into products and processes that we come to take for granted. But in these academic fields, as in all others, it looks to me like a good deal of what gets done amounts to lines, sometimes very expensive lines, on a C.V.
For those of us who observe this world from the outside, knowing it works this way provides two cautionary lessons. First, there is not necessarily a great idea or accomplishment behind every great-sounding press release or polished website. No surprise there, I hope. Second, it usually takes some time to judge the full impact of the new knowledge and abilities that we gain in these kinds of research programs. If IBM’s “Watson” program wins its Jeopardy match, we will doubtless be treated to a good deal of speculation about what it means — I might be tempted to engage in some myself. But the best response will still probably be that we can only wait and see. That’s good, because time is a useful thing for us slow-thinking humans. But it is also problematic, as the frog in the slowly warming pan of water eventually finds out.
[Photo via MGM Television via Curt Alliaume.]