A computer that will change the world

Answer:  Who is Watson?

Something happened on Wednesday night that will have a tremendous impact on the lives of you and your children, and if you saw it, I hope you didn’t miss the significance of it.

A computer named Watson outperformed Jeopardy Grand Champions

If you’ve ever been frustrated by a Google search, or speech recognition technology you can begin to understand what this means.

But only just…

A computer can now “understand” and respond to you

Imagine typing the final Jeopardy question into Google an getting the right answer as the #1 response.

“William Wilkinson’s ‘An account of the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia’ inspired this author’s most famous novel.”

Watson listened to the question, understood it and found the right answer.

He nailed it!

Thanks to the eggheads at IBM, who it appears are really thinking again.

They (IBM) created a platform that allows computers to become proficient at human language.  Indeed this complex series of algorithms can actually learn from its mistakes, become better at understanding your questions and providing you with the right answer. This was demonstrated in Jeopardy with disparate categories of questions.

Why is this important to you?

Because it means that computers may (very) soon make your job redundant

Of course computers and machines have been replacing human beings since the industrial revolution, but Watson’s success suggests that this could begin to occur, even in jobs where human contact was thought to be indispensable.

Call center reps could be in trouble

All those call centres can be outsourced to the cloud, and with improvements in speech synthesis, a caller may never be the wiser that they were speaking with a computer.

Financial advisors are at risk

People just want to know they are getting good advice and unbiased information about where to invest.  And they don’t want to spend a lot of time doing it.

Family doctors may become obsolete.

Watson’s performance suggests that many diagnostic functions of a doctor could be replaced (not just enhanced) by Watson MD. A nurse with Watson in her pocket—sometimes just Watson—will be able to make accurate diagnoses and even write referrals and prescriptions.

And the list extends to any job that requires rapidly accessing huge amounts of information to correctly respond to real life human questions.

The potential for economic disruption is huge

From a business perspective, it would be extremely attractive to have robots and computers do what currently only humans can do, without the cost of training, personnel issues, labor disputes etc.

Watson’s victory takes this scenario out of the realm of science fiction and plants it firmly in the realm of possibility—in our lifetime. Within a decade a smart computer like the one in Star Trek could be in your home and office.

Watson is currently a good canditate for “the Biggest Loser”, with all his processors, hard drives etc., taking up an entire room.

But over the next two decades thanks to Moore’s law and IBMs continued focus, Watson may go nano and future Jeopardy contestants may have to be searched to make sure they don’t have a Watson hidden in an ear.

Does this mean the rise of computer overlords?

One of the contestants joked about this in the final Jeopardy round, but I don’t think so.

While there are many philosophical and ethical questions surrounding computers that can emulate human language and thinking, I believe that the axiom of garbage-in, garbage-out still applies: computers will only operate within the parameters given to them by humans—and that could be good or bad.

We’re already using drones to spy on and kill people so humans will ultimately determine whether the technology will be used for good or evil.

Computers may one day become conscious and self-aware, but that’s a long way off, and there’s no reason to believe that such awareness will be accompanied by emotions, a necessary ingredient (I think) for a science fiction “rise of the robots”.

But it could mean tremendous economic disruption

Once industry recognizes that they can use computers and robots to reduce costs and increase performance, there could be tremendous economic disruption with a small army of Watsons displacing millions of people unprepared to find alternative means of employment.

I think this is a real possibility facing humanity over the next three decades, and it will require new ideas on a grand scale of what it means to work, and earn a living. If we humans don’t guide this process, we may be crushed by it; revolution style.

But don’t fret.

There is a tremendous upside

Yes, there really is a tremendous upside.

If we handle Watson’s technology well and proactively, prepare our children to anticipate and cope with change, to adapt and continuously learn throughout their lifetime, Watson’s Jeopardy win could herald the dawn of a tremendous great age of mankind, where work becomes truly fulfilling and all human beings become artists, philosophers, scientists, explorers, and perhaps most important of all spiritual.

Perhaps Dec 21st 2012 is not a cataclysmic end of the world as some people fear, but rather the beginning of a new age of humanity, a new age of freedom, passion and fulfillment for all human beings on the planet, a new age made possible by Watson.

At the very least, computers are about to become a whole lot cooler.

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