Saturday, February 19, 2011

Watson and the Future of Humanity

You've probably seen it by now - the videos of the IBM-created supercomputer named "Watson" correctly answering question after question on Jeopardy as its human opponents stood by helplessly. After reading many of the comments on the news articles around the Internet, I have realized that most people truly don't understand the implications of the technology behind Watson. "Computer Overlord," "HAL," and "Rise of the Machines" jokes aside, Watson represents a unique turning point in the history of computing and information searching.

Watson is unique because it can truly learn from reading - just like humans. However, Watson stores its vast amount of information based on patterns. Everything that Watson does boils down to a series of patterns, word associations, and language recognition skills. Watson will never be able to "think" on its own in terms of the human definition of "thinking." However, with every passing day, its ability to compare billions and billions of words, create highly specialized series of rules based on associations, and deliver content that is unique grows.

So what can Watson be used for, besides putting Ken Jennings to shame? Imagine five or six years from now, you're experiencing pain in your stomach. You visit the hospital and you list your symptoms aloud for the doctor. But as you do, a machine is also processing your symptoms, sorting through millions of medical articles, patient databases, your family health history, and more to determine what it thinks you should be diagnosed with. Your doctor could never possibly process that much information. Together, the computer and the doctor correctly diagnose your problem. The point here is that neither the doctor nor the computer are working independently. Humans are amazing at understanding the complexities of speech. A computer could never understand "Well it hurts sometimes, but only when I am thinking about it." However, computers are excellent at processing information. Your doctor could never sort through five million medical articles for the one that relates to you; the doctor could never think of every possible side effect of every combination of medicine. But machines can. So working in tandem, the computer and doctor could achieve much more than either could alone.

Watson represents a giant step forward in the history of computing. It is amazing how machines are slowly being trained to comprehend our search queries in terms of the spoken language rather than a string of text we type into a search engine. Hopefully Watson's technology will help us achieve even more. But always remember: humans created Watson.