Jeopardy, Watson, and Transactive Memory

The recent competition between expert human contestants and the IBM computer, Watson, raises some interesting questions. These questions relate to transactive memory. Transactive memory refers to information that is not stored in one’s personal memory, but resides in another human’s memory or in some technological artifact, such as the internet or a library. So consider the answers presented on Jeopardy to which the contestant, human or Watson, needs to find the appropriate question to ask. In the case of the Jeopardy competition, either the individual memories of the participating humans had to find the correct question, or a technological artifact, Watson, had to find the correct question.

Normally, when someone needs to find a piece of information, they can either ask someone, or look it up in a reference, or search for it with a computer. In either case they are relying on transactive memory. If they know that the information exists someplace, that is termed available transactive memory. If they know where to find or whom to ask, then that is termed accessible transactive memory.

Given the ready availability of technology, one question is whether humans need to commit any information to personal biological memory if they can simply look it up or search for it. Of course, if no human commits any information to personal biological memory, asking other humans will not be an option. I would argue that the answer to this question is “no” for a couple of reasons.

Given the philosophy of the Healthymemory Blog, a healthy memory requires mental exercise, and committing information to memory is a good means of providing this exercise. This is true if mnemonic techniques are employed. Mnemonic techniques employ both hemispheres of the brain, and require imagination, creativity, and recoding. Now some Jeopardy contestants might employ mnemonic techniques some of the time, but I doubt that they are a major activity. Jeopardy contestants read widely. For material to be remembered, it needs to be meaningful. So much knowledge on a wide variety of topics has been linked together in their brains’ memory circuits. This activity also makes for a healthy memory. Moreover, most of the topics employed on Jeopardy are not trivia. Most represent substantive learning. However, even the learning of trivia can be healthy to the brain, as it does exercise the brain and build memory circuits. Although one might argue that the time could be better spent, if the activity is enjoyable that should be justification enough.

Nevertheless, given the wide availability of technology, there is a serious educational question here. Historically, most learning has been assessed by determining how much material has been memorized via true false, multiple choice, fill in the blank, or essay questions. Is this still the best way to assess learning? Rather than assessing what knowledge has been memorized, might it be better to assess how well a student can use this knowledge. In this case, there might be no need for closed book tests, and students might be given access not only to their own notes, but also to the internet. Exam questions would require them to solve problems given access to all these resources. Of course, giving citations for the sources of material should be a requirement.

I don’t know the answer to this question. The stage of education and the type of material are relevant considerations. But testing does need to be reconsidered given the new technology.

When we encounter new information we are confronted with several questions. One is whether the information has any interest or relevance. If the answer is yes, then the question is how much attention needs to be paid to it. Does it need to be committed to personal biological memory? Or do I simply need to know how to access or whom to ask, when this information is needed? 

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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