Which Watson?

“Mr. Watson – come here!” Alexander Graham Bell calling through an experimental telephone for the attention of his laboratory aide in the next room.

“You know my methods, (Doctor) Watson.” Sherlock Homes to his solicitous, always-near companion.


I was one of millions of Jeopardy viewers who recently watched IBM’s supercomputer triumph over two very smart humans. For those of us who questioned how the company could invest millions in a computer named Watson just to perform on television, we now know there was much more behind it than a game show win; IBM now is seeking new uses for its technology.

With IBM searching for commercial applications, I reluctantly offer one: a subscription Watson service especially for travelers visiting daunting foreign cities.

For a particular locale, feed into the computer thousands and thousands pages of data — about local history, geography and government, along with streets, restaurants, and tourist sites, and hospitals, police stations and neighborhood crime. Link up GPS, voice recognition and a cell phone app, and a retooled Watson can deliver …

a smoother travel experience.

No wrong turns, no misunderstood dialects, reduced stress.

And that’s what caused my hesitation in the first place. Cell phones and lap tops already have reduced the distance we can put between our vacations and our daily lives. Watson-like services can further erode travel intangibles, limiting interactions with local residents (asking directions is a universally accepted reason for contact) and reducing development of under-used instincts (like that stomach-turning feeling, “I need to get myself out of this spot fast!!”).

If IBM runs with the idea, I hope it is with two distinct subscription options. For frequent users, a companion Dr. Watson service for constant contact, like when I am traveling with my young kids and even small missteps can become consequential. And, a more utilitarian Mr. Watson option, when I am on my own and need basic help with the isolated challenge that really matters (e.g., life or limb seems at risk).

Increasingly, travel is about choice. And, with due respect to IBM’s founder (who was yet another Watson), the two named options recognize there are different ways people travel. Just as those who prefer hostels for personal travel may use hotels at other times, those who ordinarily rely on their own instincts while on the road might choose to take special precautions for the exceptional trip.

New technologies expand our options, but can inadvertently close doors to rewarding travel experiences. So for me, the best travel choice is ordinarily the more utilitarian one: Mr. Watson, please.

By | 2015-04-30T11:28:17+00:00 March 20th, 2011|Thoughts From the Road|1 Comment

About the Author:

Since 2000, Russ has been the CEO of Hostelling International USA (HI USA), a nonprofit, member organization founded on an enduring belief in the power of travel to foster a deeper understanding of people, places, and the world around. The HI USA hostel network is consistently recognized as one of the best in world by the International Youth Hostel Federation and by independent rating agencies. Russ has been a featured speaker at national and international conferences on topics ranging from experiential education to nonprofit management. Russ serves on the Boards of the UNWTO, US Travel Association, and WYSTC.

Leave A Comment