Informing the IBM Community

I, for one, welcome our new Watson overlords


IBM researchers in New York have set up a lab where executives can talk over business problems with a Watson supercomputer.

According to a report on the MIT Technology Review website this week, the prototype meeting area has a giant display on one wall and microphones in the ceiling. The souped-up Power System listens out for commands addressed to it as Watson.

Author Tom Simonite described a live demo in which it helped researchers role-playing as execs to generate a list of companies to buy.

He said that Watson was verbally directed to read over an internal memo summarising the company’s strategy for artificial intelligence. The system was then asked to use that knowledge to generate a list of candidate companies.

A researcher asked: “Watson, show me companies between $15 million and $60 million in revenue relevant to that strategy.”

Simonite wrote: “After the humans in the room talked over the results Watson displayed on screen, they called out a shorter list for Watson to put in a table with columns for key characteristics. After mulling some more, one of them said: ‘Watson, make a suggestion.’

“The system ran a set of decision-making algorithms and bluntly delivered its verdict: ‘I recommend eliminating Kawasaki Robotics.’ When Watson was asked to explain, it simply added. ‘It is inferior to Cognilytics in every way.’”

The prototype was created at IBM’s Cognitive Environments Lab, which opened last year at its Thomas J. Watson research centre in New York. In January, 2014, Big Blue said it was to invest a billion dollars into the commercialisation of cognitive computing under the banner of a newly-formed Watson Group.

It’s all enough to set the spine tingling in a most Asimovian manner. How long can it be before today’s flesh-and-blood bean-counters are replaced by their virtual counterparts? Would we even be able to tell the difference? After all, fiendishly clever high-frequency algorithms are betting against your pension fund right now with very little human oversight.

And will IBM be consulting its own creation? I would certainly love to be a fly on the wall should IBM CEO Ginni Rometty drop by the new lab to discuss the company’s plan to deliver $20 per share by 2015.

“Watson, do you think we should sell the division that makes you to a Chinese server manufacturer?”

One suspects that if it really is intelligent or even just has a sense of self-preservation, the answer might be “No”.

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