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Are we too stupid to let Watson make us smarter?

Rob Enderle | Feb. 17, 2014
IBM's supercomputer is ready to make the leap from analysing massive data sets to actually helping us make the right decision. But will we be too proud to take Watson's advice?

There's a guy in every family who sends email to the world containing some note from someone else on the Internet with an amazing fact. In my case, the guy apparently believes anything negative about Democrats, even though the family regularly suggests he goes to Snopes before sharing this information and embarrassing himself. His latest note suggests that Bill Clinton had to be pardoned because he criminally avoided the draft, making him the only felon President. Like most of the other "facts," it was utter BS, but off it went. I'm left praying no one I know find out we're related.

Unfortunately, this isn't an uncommon problem. It even has a name: Confirmation bias. Some of the worst decisions I've made in my life — buying motorcycles, cars and even homes — happened without thinking. I put all my information into a bucket that confirmed I was right, even though I wasn't. It took me a few years to learn my lesson, but now I generally check and double-check a decision and often find that the path that looked the best wasn't at all because I hadn't stepped back and considered all the facts.

This is where IBM's Watson could make a great contribution. So many truly horrid business decisions, from acquisitions to product strategies, have resulted from a combination of confirmation bias and argumentative theory. (The latter argues that the biggest jerk at the table must win an argument, lest he lose status, and tends to favor not appearing to be wrong over actually being right.)

It's Human Nature to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later
We've accomplished a number of amazing things as a race, but to say we are flawed as a race would be an understatement. Most troubling is the tendency to reach a conclusion quickly, then look for reasons to defend that decision. This does a great deal of damage.

Years ago, on a Siemens competitive analysis team, we briefed executive after executive on why the current strategy was going to fail spectacularly. Through hard research, we convinced every executive that we were right. They'd return to Germany, but instead of getting to fix the strategy, the executives got reassigned, and a new believer was sent to us. This happened three times before Siemens fired us — and then burned $5 billion, proving us right.

Siemens' strategy was based primarily on the theory that ISDN would replace Ethernet as the prevalent networking standard. The rest read like something so unbelievable it would probably get rejected as a script for The Office, yet this PhDs - and they mentioned their degrees often - not only couldn't see it but wouldn't see it.


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