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The Watson problem

Posted by on February 16, 2017.

There is a problem with Watson.

Don’t get me wrong; I love Watson, or at least the idea of Watson. For such an incredibly complex operation the concept is clean and simple.

You take a great big computer. You teach it to understand free text; and then you feed it millions and millions of research papers, studies, scientific analyses and so on.

In fact over the years you feed it all the knowledge in the world – and you end up with a computer that holds and understands all the knowledge in the world. Ask it any question and it instantly knows the answer.

Of course, some of the information it has digested will be wrong. But because it has everything, it can use crowd wisdom to know the truth. When was the last time you saw Millionaire’s ask-the-audience get it wrong?

That’s the theory; so where’s the problem? Well, it’s not with Watson. Watson is just a machine and it does what it is told. The problem is with the humans who feed it the information, and the humans who will come to rely on its wisdom. But the reality is that it will never be given everything. The owners will decide.

Consider its use in healthcare. Who owns the scientific studies in healthcare? The pharmaceutical companies. They commission the research and they suppress what they don’t like. You can guarantee that the research going into Watson will be heavily weighted in favour of the pharmaceutical industries. If a paper criticises a particular vaccine, there will be a dozen that sings its praises. And using crowd wisdom, if you ask Watson how to prevent an illness, it will say, have the vaccination.

Because the machine does not understand truth, it just understands numbers. The problem is that we humans will translate the machine’s numerical output into moral and ethical truth.

This principle goes beyond healthcare. It will be repeated wherever a big and powerful industry controls the information that is fed into the machine. Governments will do the same. They will control the input in order to control the output. And we will simply accept the output as truth.

Just as calculators have robbed us of the ability, or need, to do mental arithmetic, so will Watson rob us of the ability to think for ourselves. Why should we? Just ask Watson.

One thought on “The Watson problem

  1. “Just as calculators have robbed us of the ability, or need, to do mental arithmetic, so will Watson rob us of the ability to think for ourselves.”

    I feel your concern – for me it’s the ability to memorize phone numbers which I lost with the emergence of cell phones.

    I refuse to use Waze because I don’t want to lose my own navigation skills. I prefer memorizing the route in advance and keep Google maps on hand in case of emergency, but I don’t want to rely on GPS for real-time navigation.

    The latest trend I see is that people (myself included) fail to memorize a lot of facts because google is always available.

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