When IBM's Watson challenge goes live on television's Jeopardy game show in three weeks, a 50-year slog of futurist computing credulity will again hang in the balance. The demonstration, billed alternately as man versus machine or as a natural language breakthrough, is also another stab at a durable vision of how people and computers ought to maturely interact.

Anyone who works with data and information will see Watson in part for what it is, a speech processing, question answering, talking machine built over four years at stunning cost to play the Jeopardy game show against human competitors. Reports so far have stopped at the implication of artificial intelligence, burned too often by a term that has failed by definition to meet expectations in a single commercial product.

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