After All the Changin’, What’s Remainin’ ?

You saw it, probably — the television commercial in which Bob Dylan carries on a conversation with a gizmo that represents Watson, the IBM computer system that is said “to mirror the same learning processes people have through the power of cognition.” 

The inflectionless gizmo reports to Dylan that it has, in an effort to improve its language skills, read all of the poet’s lyrics. Watson assures Dylan that it can read 800 million pages a second, and Bob, gray on gray, concedes, “That’s fast.” 

So it is we begin to wonder whether there is anything that Watson cannot do better and faster than human beings. What will be left as uniquely human as the pioneers of artificial intelligence and increasingly sophisticated robots go marching on?

Dylan’s evolution as an artist, many times chronicled, was not the product of a plan or deliberate decision-making or strategies, tactics and action steps. He departed Minnesota for the (east) coast having grown enamored of Woody Guthrie. His mission was simple. He just wanted to meet the Dust Bowl Poet, hoping that something special would rub off.

Dylan soon would attract a reputation as a walking Woody Guthrie jukebox, and meanwhile learn that the genius of poetry derives from uniting things that would not seem to go together.

That, too, is the genius of innovation, author/entrepreneur/consultant Frans Johannson, who grew up black in Sweden, told Gulf Power’s economic symposium in October. He cited innovators who united bikinis and burqas to arrive at practical swimwear that even a Saudi woman can wear and meshed termite mounds and architecture in developing a building that stays cool — in Zimbabwe — without air conditioning.

It is this kind of genius that Watson may struggle with, the peculiar intelligence and sensibilities that couple a room full of men with bleeding hammers, a newborn baby with wild wolves, sad forests with dead oceans, misty mountains with crooked highways.

Watson computes, too, that he has never known love.

“Maybe we should write a song together,” Dylan proposes.

Yes, well, we all should write a song together. When Mr. Guthrie penned “This Land is Your Land,” he produced an anthem that was be-all and end-all — and for all — from California to the New York island.

We’re all in this together, and we have limited land to stand on. Long before there existed driverless cars or fossil fuel consumption or gunpowder or Homo erectus, terrestrials took a big leap of faith in leaving the waters of the water planet. Writes the poet and novelist Jim Harrison, “We all stay quiet about it, this blessed oxygen that makes our world a crematory. Only the water is safe.”

That is, Watson, only community will keep us safe.

Finally, the gizmo tells the bard that he can sing and then synthesizes, “Do be bop be bop a do do be do be do do do do be do,” as Dylan gathers up his guitar (electric) and, disgusted, exits stage right.

Never would a Watson come by Dylan’s nasalin’, a saxophone’s wailin’, a fog liftin’ or a wheat field wavin’.

And Watson, know this. When Bob Dylan tells you that you can’t sing, that means something.

Categories: Director’s Column, Opinion