Elementary, my dear IBM Watson

In one of my earlier posts this year, I briefly covered some of Ray Kurzweil’s predictions. In his famous book, The Singularity is Near, Kurzweil predicts that by 2050 the average desktop machine will have more processing power than all of humanity combined. Scary, right? However, and perhaps more worrying, he has even more famously predicted that machines will match human intelligence and pass the Turing Test by 2029. The what test?

The Turing Test came about in 1950 when the British Alan Turing wrote a provocative article, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, advocating the possibility of artificial intelligence (AI). Having spent the prior decade arguing with psychologists and philosophers about that possibility, as well as helping to crack the Nazi Enigma machine (watch The Imitation Game with Benedict Cumberbatch who also plays Sherlock – nice link there to ‘Watson’, Kai), he became frustrated with the prospect of actually defining intelligence. So he proposed instead a behavioural criterion along the following lines, “If a machine could fool humans into thinking it’s a human, then it must be at least as intelligent as a normal human.”

It is considered that it is the defining test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. Put simply, this means that a computer will be able to mimic human thinking, but without a conscious or emotion. Before we all run for the hills and unplug ourselves, how likely it is?

Well this is where IBM Watson comes in.

IBM Watson (or simply Watson) is cognitive computing technology that processes information more like a human than a computer. It was developed in IBM’s DeepQA project and is named after IBM’s first CEO Thomas J. Watson. The computer system was specifically developed to answer questions on the quiz show Jeopardy!, which it famously won in 2011 (disconnected from the internet).

Recently reported in The Age, Watson is becoming useful and is now looking for a cure for cancer and also has gastronomy ambitions including devising a recipe for chocolate-beef burritos (random). It is becoming a jack of all trades for IBM, including a new role as a business consultant and analyst for various industries by using massive internet databases. Impressive technological innovation. IBM certainly thinks so, and a lot of money is being invested in this and other AI technology.

I often work with law firms, who are all carefully watching the development of smart legal based software programs and systems. So in January this year, it made headline when the University of Toronto team built a virtual legal research database – called Ross – for the IBM Watson Cognitive Computing Competition, they cam second. To create Ross, they taught Watson like any other legal student. They loaded a huge volume of public legal documents and used the subject matter experts on their team to calibrate Watson to provide useful answers on the documents. What makes Watson, in this example, so powerful is its ability to learn, so the more lawyers use it, the better it gets. Ross is going to be targeted at small to medium-sized law firms to start with, and will be available as a cloud service. Very interesting developments indeed.

They untold opportunities behind IBM Watson is a definite sign that artificial intelligence and cognitive computing is actually making some steady , and currently useful, progress. Over the next decade many business and sectors will benefit massively from the efficiencies that AI brings.

Let’s just wait and see what happens when, and if, the machine start thinking for themselves.

Thanks for reading.


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