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Human Knowledge in the Age of Watson

Watson, as an artefact, inhabits a place and a time toward a specific purpose, but lacks the creaturely ability to adapt to new times and new places. It may handle information, but it cannot get wisdom.
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
—Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law

In 2006, chess champion Vladimir Kramnik was defeated by a computer in a match, two games to four. It was not unheard of for computers to win at chess—since the late 1960s, chess was an ideal programmer's challenge because of the simple rules and complex strategy. But the 2006 match was unique: it was the first time that a computer had beaten the reigning world champion.


Mankind has an odd relationship with its technology. Our goal, it appears, is to make a machine that can best us. The recent "man versus machine" match on the game show Jeopardy is a case in point. The show's producers brought in its two greatest champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, to compete against Watson, an IBM computer programmed to understand—and respond in—spoken natural language. Watson won, handily.

In the first day's casual get-to-know-the-contestants segment, the program featured video of some of the early test rounds. Some of the results were, well, not promising. But, as they demonstrated the development process, Watson correctly responded to an obscure question during a test round that required a logical connection between Shakespeare, history, and popular culture. The response of the developers was telling: "How did he know that?"

Well, in the words of my old friend Greg: "Don't anthropomorphise computers; they hate that."

The simple question "how did he know that?" brings up an important question: What is the nature of knowledge in the age of Watson? Indeed, can a computer—any computer—know anything?

One of my roles as an educator is helping people to understand the complex nature of the learning, leadership, and knowledge economies. I try to break down information into a meaningful structure, consisting of data, information, knowledge, learning, and wisdom.

A typical taxonomy of information begins with data: raw, factual content, apart from any details that would provide hints as to its interpretation. An example is "1273"—factual, accurate, and meaningless apart from this: How many words are in this article?

Data, by its nature, is insular and cryptic. It demands interpretation, and while that is important, it also explains why there is truth in the old maxim that "figures lie and liars figure."

When data is contextualized, it becomes information. One of the wonders of our nature, as created beings, is that we are able to turn data into information so quickly. Information is generally made up of large domains that help us frame it.

Whenever we utter the phrase "do you have the data on . . . ", we're actually asking for data that has already been categorized and become information. Information carries with it additional interpretive details—location, cultural setting, source, usefulness, and so on.

Having information, however, is not enough. In the taxonomy, Watson still holds the advantage up to this point. But what Watson cannot do is know. Information applied becomes knowledge. We add further contextualisation and personalisation of the information, and in doing so, we give it additional value—not in an economic sense, but in its overall usefulness and connection to the concerns of the individual, organization, or community. Watson may mimic this, but it cannot truly know.

Every student knows this by experience. There is a big difference between having information and knowing. Information allows one to cram for an exam just to get through that required course. Knowing happens when one seeks to understand and integrate complex subject matter and make that not only part of our thinking, but part of the fibre of who we are. We inherently understand that learning lurks in the transition between information and knowledge.

Finally, learning will yield to wisdom, which has two main characteristics. First, it places knowledge and learning in light of the eternal; second, it creates a set of general principles by which future events can be interpreted. In other words, wisdom allows us to learn in ways beyond experiential. I believe that two Biblical ideas—"He has put eternity into man's heart" (Ecclesiastes 3:11) and "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalm 111:10 and Proverbs 9:10)—mesh together to give us new ways of thinking.

Watson's Core Problem

The problem with Watson is that it is an artefact—a testimony to the creative impetus that God has entrusted to humanity. No doubt, this is an important technological accomplishment, and I don't want to minimize its significance. Even so, Watson will never understand that knowledge is situated. Calvin Seerveld's concept that we are a people not only of a specific time, but a specific place, applies to this scenario. Watson, as an artefact, inhabits a place and a time toward a specific purpose, but lacks the creaturely ability to adapt to new times and new places.

Daniel Schwandt introduced the idea of sense-making to the field of human learning. Sense-making means not only making logical connections and drawing rational conclusions, but aligning those logical insights with our values, feelings, and emotions. People cannot make sense of life unless we can understand it rationally and emotionally.

We learn by making sense of expressed, tacit, theoretical, and practical information, by framing that learning in a creational context. In other words, information is useless apart from its place in creation and apart from mankind's circumstances as beings created in the image of God. Watson's ability to make logical connections may be impressive, but it is not intellect. It is not wisdom.

Ultimately, education is about transformation: Shaping our understanding so that it changes the way we live. We must be intentional about this, or we cede our God-given role as ministers of reconciliation. T.S. Eliot warned against information apart from wisdom in his poem The Rock, when he wrote:

Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.

In a Christian sense, education and discipleship are one and the same. Eliot struck a theme that recurs throughout the Bible: our call to constantly move from information to wisdom. Paul warned Timothy about those who are "always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth" (II Timothy 3:7), and Proverbs reminds us that "the beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight" (Proverbs 4:7).

Here, Watson meets its limits: It may handle information, but it cannot get wisdom. The gift of wisdom is granted, for the asking, to humanity alone.

Behold, we are creating Watson in our own image. But that image cannot include the heart—the spiritual aspect of our being. Perhaps considering the works of our own hands ought to awaken us all the more to our amazing place in creation: created by God, in His image; fallen into sin, the image broken; and redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, by grace through faith. Watson may accurately handle data and occasion statistically sound interpretations of that data, but it will never rise to the level of knowledge. Knowledge, ultimately, is grounded in life, in faith, in transformation, in community, and in relationship with God. We cannot understand the place of Watson—or any other technological advancement—apart from a proper understanding of the nature of man as created being, bearing imago dei.

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Sam Helgerson Sam Helgerson
Leslie J. "Sam" Helgerson, PhD, seeks to equip, delight, and encourage leaders in their day-to-day life of faith. ... read more »

Posted in Philosophy, Tech.

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