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What have you done Watson?

Humanity’s solid thumping at the hands of Watson has produced an interesting mix of fear/loathing/meh responses. I think it’s significant, primarily because it represents an advance in natural language interaction with databases. After all, Google can answer “what is” and “who is” questions far better than most people can. Data and facts aren’t very complex things. The interface (natural language to data store) is complex. Which is why I’m impressed with that aspect of Watson. Once Watson can answer: How did the 1780′s political and socio-economic upheaval in France impact the development of US constitution and contribute to the subsequent growth of middle class in that country (US)?, I’ll be impressed with its “cognitive” abilities as well.

Here is a sampling of responses to Watson’s victory:

Watson doesn’t make humanity obsolete, yet: “Watson doesn’t really “think” anything, and it struggles with simple questions that most humans can answer without a second thought…At the end of the day, Watson is not really conceptualizing a clue’s meaning. It simply number-crunches its way to the right answers by comparing vast amounts of data. This is why it dominates the “fill in the blank” knowledge clues (Aeolic, spoken in ancient times, was a dialect of this), but falters on some more “common sense” deductions.”

Watson’s mistakes reveal its genius: “Interestingly, where Watson failed was sometimes more instructive than when it succeeded.”

NYTimes: “I have been in medical education for 40 years and we’re still a very memory-based curriculum,” said Dr. Herbert Chase, a professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University who is working with I.B.M. on the physician’s assistant. “The power of Watson- like tools will cause us to reconsider what it is we want students to do”

Watson moves to healthcare: “IBM has announced a partnership with Nuance Communications to utilize Watson’s technology in healthcare. The partnership will involve research combining IBM’s Deep Question Answering, natural language processing, and machine learning capabilities with Nuance’s speech recognition and Clinical Language Understanding solutions. The goal is to help improve diagnosis and treatment of patients.”

See this video on the technology behind Watson for more details.