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Is it time to welcome our computer overlords…?

It has been interesting to watch the array of opinions and commentary related to IBM’s recent successes pitch machine against man (again!), in Watson’s Jeopardy challenge.

Reading about Watson, led me to IBM’s Research website where you can see the dizzying array of research projects that IBM participates in, with a worldwide staff of 3,000. With diverse fields of study from the more obvious Computer Science & Engineering, Mathematics and Physics through to Chemistry and Material Science, it is a reminder of how incredibly diverse IBM’s business interests are.

This may seem to adopt a Dirk Gently perspective to research (to the unitiated, Gently was a Douglas Adams-created detective who believed in the interconnectedness of everything and, therefore, would go to the other side of the world to solve a whole crime). What struck me was how this relatively unknown activity by IBM really sets them apart from other vendors who tend to be much more specifically product led in their research efforts. It was quite surprising to learn the extent to which IBM’s research has the potential to produce results that can change all our lives in the future. Which brings us to Watson, the Jeopardy-playing computer.

IBM’s Watson was up against 2 champions of the gameshow Jeopardy. The BBC article covering this story, IBM’s Watson supercomputer crowned Jeopardy king, points out that the challenge isn’t simply knowing the answer as the show has:

rapid fire format and clues that rely on subtle meanings, puns, and riddles; something humans excel at and computers do not.

Watson is reliant on some of the most sophisticated natural language artificial intelligence ever developed. This means that Watson has the capability to take data sources written in natural language and ‘normalise’ and analyse the contents in such a way that it can present precise answers to questions and also provide the evidence of how it arrived at this answer. It is not just advanced search but is the next generation of data analytics.

Some of the commentary has been quite cynical and some suggested that to use this cutting edge technology to win a gameshow is rather wasteful, but that misses the point.
FT columnist, Christopher Caldwell, notes the potential future applications for Watson’s progeny. In a rather ascerbic piece, Jeopardy is just the start for Watson, he notes that both the medical and legal professions could benefit from efficiency savings from Watson Jr. They could act as triage nurses, assessing the respective severity of patients’ conditions and prioritise the workload of the real doctors. He is at pains to point out that this sort of technology will not replace the judgment of a physician or, indeed, a lawyer.

In an interesting webcast looking at how Watson’s achievements might filter down into the real world, there are examples of Watson-type technology being used to perform evidence based decision making by understanding data and context and searching for patterns and associations that turn raw data into knowledge.

He does note a side effect that often accompanies new technology:

In most tasks, computers don’t ever fully step on to man’s turf. They don’t mimic man and outperform him. They perform a similar task quickly enough and cheaply enough to make the old, “human” ways of doing things seem unreasonable.

And it is worth remembering, Watson doesn’t ‘think’ – ‘he’ is just a machine that can process vast quantities of data more quickly than a human. But don’t be mistaken, we do need Watson – we live in a world of data overload, so technology has to evolve to help us filter and make sense of this information, faster than we can on our own.

One of the defeated contestants paraphrased the spirit of Kent Brockman, the newsreader in The Simpsons:

I for one welcome our new computer overlords

So, it appears he wasn’t too disappointed by his defeat.

The achievement of the team behind Watson is impressive and shows a real commitment on the part of IBM to innovate. The technology that drives Watson will be put to use in many ways, including in the field of enterprise content management (ECM), which is an area that we are working in.
I will be blogging about ECM soon, but until then I shall leave you with the hope that I never encounter Watson in a pub quiz.

Categories: IBM, News
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