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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?

My most famous (or infamous) situation involved Windows Vista. I constantly said it wasn't ready and would fail if something wasn't done. (A later lawsuit made all those emails public.) Microsoft thought I was crazy — until the product launched and crashed in market. I was hardly the only one who saw that train wreck coming. But everyone else not only didn't see the signs; they refused to see the signs. The result was a boom.

Watson Can Make Us Smarter (If We Let It)
Watson, as you know, is IBM's thinking computer. This week, IBM presented something called Watson Jr. that will make Siri look stupid by comparison. But it's the next generation of this product that I find fascinating, because Watson is being taught how to reason.

Watson will have access to all the information you have — and it won't have confirmation bias or a need to gain status by appearing to be right. In effect, this cognitive computing will give us the equivalent of a "Stupid Alert" and be able to tell us when we're doing something we will later very much regret. This may be its most useful feature — and it could very well save the world:

  • I recall a Senate hearing at the close of the Iraq conflict during which one general said rebuilding the country would cost more than the war itself. He was laughed into retirement - but he was also dead right.
  • Scientists build larger and larger particle colliders and put them through much more rigorous experiments than they were originally designed to handle. I don't know about you, but when it comes to the death of our planet, 1,000-to-one odds, even if flawed, don't seem very reasonable. It's not like we can relocate.
  • Global warming is a contentious issue, and one side of the debate seems to be more correct than the other, but it would sure help to know which site is, in fact, right before we are all dead. (Granted, the problem pretty much solves itself at that point.)

Watson should make us smarter. That's my hope. But I'm reminded of my Siemens example. In the face of a global catastrophe, if Watson told us that popular opinion was wrong, would we turn it off, thinking, "Gee, that can't be right"?

It sounds like a plot from The Outer Limits — and I sure hope for the sake of us all that it isn't also prophetic. Watson could assure our future. I wonder if we're too human to let it.


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