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February 21, 2011 / Political Fluency

What IBM’s Watson Means for Regular People

Denis Leary – “A zillion dollars worth of technology and what are we doing with it?”

Hipster girl – “Browsing.”

Lotus Internet Commercial  from the late 90’s


One of the biggest advancements in Artificial Intelligence had the unfortunate luck of being demonstrated during historic national and international protests, but it deserves a comment.

The IBM Watson computer absolutely crushed two of the best Jeopardy champions of all time at that very game.

What Watson does is essentially the next level of – or many levels above – what Google does. Despite the number of search engines available at the advent of the public use of the internet in the late 90’s, Google was able to quickly become the search engine of choice through a key differentiation.  Other search engines simply organized search results by the number of times the words input into the engine appeared on different webpages. Google used algorithms to determine the relevance of the search results based on page views and the number of links to certain websites.

Once the word quickly spread that if you “googled it” you would find what you were looking for faster than using any other search engine, Google dominated the internet.

Where Google mines the internet in order to produce the most relevant search results, Watson – which was not connected to the internet during the Jeopardy game – is meant to mine all available data that is input into it while recognizing the nuance of human language when asking a full question as opposed to searching for a key word or phrase.

The next step for Watson is likely in the health care, financial, and legal industries where vast amounts of data are available and it is impossible for humans to keep pace with it.

But what could Watson do for regular people?

Two of Watson’s most notable answers may provide insight into this.

The first was “This child star got his first onscreen kiss in My Girl.” Watson didn’t chime in before Ken Jennings answered the question, but he it did rank the correct answer of Macaulay Culkin at 67% and Miley Cyrus at 8%.

Now Miley Cyrus seems strange because My Girl came out 19 years ago and the clue indicates the answer is a guy. It’s not a stretch to say almost no person would have even thought of Miley Cyrus when trying to come up with even a guess at the answer. But then I began to think of the similarities and differences between Miley Cyrus and Macaulay Culkin – two people I don’t really think of much and certainly never together.

Watson “thinks” differently than humans do. Watson scans its entire database of knowledge then uses algorithms to narrow down the possible choices. This is something humans would do way too slowly if the human mind even tried. Instead we connect related things and access those things from our memory or, more precisely, our recall ability.

The second answer Watson gave is perhaps its most notorious. And that was its guess “Toronto” in the Final Jeopardy category of US Cities. IBM project manager David Ferrucci gave an explanation that was so thorough in the number of alibis meant to diminish the significance of Watson’s error, it makes me shudder to think how Ferrucci explains to a woman when he can’t get it up in bed.

So Watson’s key differentiation may be in the way it relates things that humans would normally not think of together. Or at least it will immediately help to confirm and clarify what humans may already suspect in the case of a medical diagnosis or court case citation.

This means Watson will likely produce responses from humans such as “I never thought of it that way.” Or “That’s what I thought.” Do you know who hears those words the most right now?


We already see people’s dependence/addiction to companionship on the internet with their 1,000+ friends on Facebook, the thousands of posts many leave on the same message boards, and the 12 million paid subscribers to World of Warcraft. And that’s among much other evidence of people using the internet for additional or even true companionship. There’s no reason to think that Watson wouldn’t be used in people’s homes to simply make them feel better or give them ideas of what to do to make them feel better about themselves.

Then again, once wives and girlfriends begin using the home version of Watson to playback everything their significant other has said to them in every fight a couple has, IBM may have its headquarters burned down.


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