A Judgement of Watson: Mathematics Wins!

February 17, 2011

Tom Davenport argues in this HBR article Why I’m Pulling for Watson – Tom Davenport – Harvard Business Review that

Tom Davenport argues in this HBR article Why I’m Pulling for Watson – Tom Davenport – Harvard Business Review that

I want Watson to win. Why? It’s elementary: my dear Watson is a triumph of human ingenuity. In other words, there is no way humans can lose this competition. Watson also illustrates that the knowledge, judgment, and insights of the smartest humans can be embedded into automated systems. I suspect that those automated systems will ultimately be used to make better decisions in many domains, and interact with humans in a much more intelligent way. If computers can persuade Alex Trebek that they’re very smart—and that’s what he said about Watson—they’ll be able to interact effectively with almost any human with a problem to solve.

While this is true, I don’t agree that Watson itself is using “judgement” or “making decisions”. It appears to me that it is a very nice search engine that incorporates NLP to make these searches more relevant. It isn’t giving opinions, synthesizing information to create innovative ideas, or making inferences through extrapolation, all things humans do on a regular basis. This has long been one of my complaints about the way neural networks were described: they “learn”, they “think”, they “make inferences”. No, they are a nonlinear function that finds weights via gradient descent searches. The no more “learn” than logistic regression “learns”.

A lot of the hype gets back to the old “hard AI” vs. “soft AI” debates that have been going on for decades. I appreciated very much the book by Roger Penrose on this subject, Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness.

This isn’t to minimize the incredible feat IBM has accomplished with Watson, or on a simpler level, the feats of decision-making that can be performed with nonlinear mathematics in neural networks or support vector machines. These are phenomenal accomplishments that are awe inspiring mathematically, and on a more practical level will assist us all in the future with improved ability to automate decision-making. Of course, these kinds of decisions are those that do not require innovation or judgement, but can be codified mathematically. Every time I check out at an automatic teller at Home Depot, deposit checks at an ATM, or even make an amazon purchase, I’m reminded of the depth of technology that makes these complex transactions simple to the user. Watson is the beginning of the next leap in this ongoing technological march forward, all created by enterprising humans who have been able to break down complex behavior into repeatable, reliable, and flexible algorithmic steps.

In the end, I agree with Mr. Davenport, “So whether the humans or Watson win, it means that humans have come out on top.”