Tom Simonite

A View from Tom Simonite

Where Next for IBM's Watson?

The Jeopardy-winning supercomputer looks set to end up working on more humdrum tasks.

  • February 17, 2011

By now you probably know the final score: we lost. Last night the human race’s representatives were defeated by IBM’s computer system Watson in the finale of a three-round Jeopardy battle.

Watson’s achievement raises some serious questions. Putting aside the philosophical ones about how much closer we are to the technological singularity, one of the biggest is: what does a computer trained in the art of Jeopardy do next?

From what IBM has said so far, it seems Watson’s life is about to get considerably less glamorous. The computer’s DeepQA software is intended to be used by businesses to offer help desks for customers, adhere to regulatory requirements and provide “business intelligence”, the company says on the project’s web pages.

The New York Times wrote today that:

“I.B.M. executives also said they are in discussions with a major consumer electronics retailer to develop a version of Watson, named after I.B.M.’s founder, Thomas J. Watson, that would be able to interact with consumers on a variety of subjects like buying decisions and technical support.”

It sounds like a massively more powerful version of Siri, the artificially intelligent iPhone app that (until it was bought and shuttered by Apple) could do tasks like make restaurant reservations in response to spoken commands.

Watson’s first assignment, though, is to be helping doctors, not hungry restaurant seekers. IBM has teamed up with speech recognition software firm Nuance and Columbia University Medical School to have the system help diagnose and treat patients. In a statement, Herbert Chase, professor of Clinical Medicine at Columbia, said that:

“Watson has the potential to help doctors reduce the time needed to evaluate and determine the correct diagnosis for a patient.”

Working in medicine will exercise an ability that we saw Watson flex in its Jeopardy battles: not only generating an answer to a question, but also judging its confidence that answer is correct. That’s something doctors must do when making decisions for their patients.

A video from IBM summarizes some of the other areas the company’s latest employee could be put to work. Many rely on the computer’s powerful reading abilities, says IBM researcher Brenda Dietrich:

“Most of the data out there today is unstructured data, it’s text, written words, spoken words.”

One consequence is that, like many of us humans, Watson is likely to spend a lot of time in its new job is surfing the web. Accessing the internet takes too long for the fast-paced arena of Jeopardy. In less time sensitive conditions the computer’s ability to read and at least partially understand text could see it do remarkable things with what it can find online.

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