More Stuff on Watson

February 18, 2011

As I guess one might expect, from the outcome of the Jeopardy! IBM challenge, in which the computer system Watson scored a convincing win over former Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, there has been a good deal of subsequent conversation about the result, what it means, and so on.  There are a couple of items, in particular, that I wanted to mention here, since I think they are more informed and insightful than much of the commentary that I’ve seen.

The first, which I’ve mentioned before, is Stephen Baker”s Final Jeopardy blog, on which he has a number of interesting and amusing posts about the match.  He has always made insightful comments on the project; and, of course, he is the author of the book, Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine, which I am in the process of reading, and will review here when I’m done.  He notes a couple of questions about Watson posted on Twitter, one of which was “What is love?”.  It seems to me unreasonable to expect a machine to come up with the answer to a question that humans have been trying to answer, never entirely successfully, for millenia.  As Baker has often been at pains to remind us, it is tempting to use anthropomorphic language to describe what Watson does, but it really is better to avoid it, lest we disappear down the rabbit hole in discussions of the meaning of meaning.

Baker also mentions an article by Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the New York Times, who writes in The Atlantic about Watson’s natural language processing ability.  He refers to Ken Jennings’s quip at the end of the match (I quoted it here.).   As he points out, although Watson’s Natural Language Processing abilities are very impressive, it sees words as symbols, and doesn’t “get” their cultural context.

All of this is to say that while Ken and Brad lost the battle, Team Carbon is still winning the language war against Team Silicon. The “war” metaphor, incidentally, had been playing out for weeks, stoked by IBM and Jeopardy! to build public interest in the tournament.  …  IBM knew from the Kasparov vs. Deep Blue days that we’re all suckers for the “man vs. machine” trope, going back to John Henry’s mythical race against the steam-powered hammer.

The last item I want to share is one from the site.  TED describes itself this way:

TED is a small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader.

It also runs the site, which features the “TED talks”, some of the best presentations from TED’s semi-annual conferences, on a wide variety of subjects.   It awards the annual TED Prize, for “One Idea to Change the World”, and sponsors an Open Translation Project to make the talks available in a wide variety of languages.

On Thursday morning, February 17, TED sponsored a panel discussion, hosted at IBM, on Watson’s success, and what he should do next if he wants an honest job.  (In this context, I find the anthropomorphic language impossible to resist.)  The discussion moderator was Stephen Baker, and the other participants were IBM’s principal scientist on Watson, Dr. David Ferrucci, IBM Fellow Kerrie Holley, and Prof. Herbert Chase from the Columbia University Medical Center, one of the participants in a test of using Watson as a medical diagnostic assistant.  The video presentation, which runs slightly more than half an hour, is archived here.

There were a couple of interesting things that came out in the discussion.  The first was the announcement that IBM has partnered with Nuance Communications to endow Watson with speech processing and recognition capabilities.  That will obviously make it more usable in a wider variety of contexts.

One claim, which has been circulated in various discussions on the Internet, is that Watson had an unfair advantage because it could press the Jeopardy! buzzer faster. As both Mr. Baker and Dr. Ferrucci point out, though, human contestants have a compensating advantage, because they can see the clue as it is read by Alex Trebek, and anticipate his finishing it.  (Contestants are not allowed to “buzz in” before that point.)  So it seems to me that neither Watson nor that human contestant has an advantage, on balance.

Another highlight, at least for me, was a question asked by Stephen Baker, which he says is asked all the time, “Does Watson think?”   Dr. Ferrucci’s answer to this question, besides being somewhat humorous, really pointed out how silly this question can be; he asked “Can submarines swim?”   The point, of course, is that in both cases, the answer to the question depends almost entirely on how we define the activity, a point I tried to make in a previous post.  Humans, of course, have a conscious experience of thinking, which Watson doesn’t have (although, as I also said before, I don’t believe any of us is sufficiently introspective to understand our thought processes completely, and certainly not all the way down to the “hardware”).  In any case, Watson’s real value is its ability to process a huge amount of data, expressed in natural language, and present a set of alternative answers, with its estimate of the likelihood of their being correct.  As Prof. Chase pointed out, this is just what is wanted by a physician doing differential diagnosis.

I do encourage you to have a look at the video.  Mr. Baker does a great job at moderating the discussion, and the other panelists all have interesting insights to contribute.

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