I recently wrote about IBM Watson’s new debating skills. In that post, I reported on how Watson is now able to build logical arguments both for and against specific policies or topics (using viewpoints written and published by real people). Now IBM has added additional capabilities to its cognitive computing platform. Based on an article from the MIT Technology Review, Watson can now act as a smart executive advisor in meetings.
Tom Simonite, author of the MIT Technology Review article, described a test run of the new Watson feature that took place at IBM’s Cognitive Environments Lab in Yorktown Heights, New York. The lab has a conference room outfitted with microphones to pick up everything meeting participants say. Some sort of software apparently takes all the speech input and transcribes it in real-time to feed it to Watson. Apparently Watson only takes text input at this point.
In the lab test that Simonite observed, a group of IBM folks pretended that they were at an executive strategy session where the goal was to identify strong acquisition targets for a company. Watson was directed to read over a corporate strategy memo summarizing the goal. It was then asked to go out and find possible companies that would make good acquisitions and bring back a list of those companies.
Once Watson returned a list of potential acquisition targets, the meeting participants proceeded to discuss them. They asked Watson to shorten the list and to include key characteristics on each company in a table. Finally, they asked Watson to make a recommendation on the strongest candidate and then asked it some follow up questions. While this executive advisor version of Watson doesn’t seem to be strongly conversational, it can answer direct questions with short, concise responses.
The demo that Simonite describes provides us with a preview of what might be on the horizon for intelligent assistants. Watson has the ability to very quickly consume and analyze large data stores and draw conclusions. This ability to rapidly read and grasp meaning would be a great trait to have in an enterprise assistant. If I know that I need to select the best material out of which to construct my product, for example, but I don’t have the ability to locate, read, and compare information on all viable materials, a Watson-like assistant would come in very handy.
It’s important to remember, though, that Watson relies completely on existing information that was developed by humans. Some of that data may be in a structured format and other content may be completely unstructured, but Watson isn’t making any of this knowledge up or inventing any new concepts. The Watson technology gives us quicker access to the content, and in a way that allows us to make better decisions based on having a broader view of the information and how it relates to other relevant data. It would be good if there was some way to give credit to those humans who created the content that Watson leverages. Ideally (or perhaps idealistically) it would be even better if the originators of the content could profit in a small way from the fact that Watson discovers their information and, in some sense, monetizes it. (This is an idea that Jaron Lanier espouses in his book Who Owns the Future, which is about how to make the economics of a software mediated world work).
Hopefully, as IBM and others develop this type of smart analytical computing, they will ensure that we have a way to understand and verify the results these assistants bring back to us. A Jeopardy! answer is either right or wrong. But the types of answers an executive assistant Watson might provide should be the starting point for further human analysis, not the end of the discussion.