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IBM Watson Avatar

By Steve Hamm

Back in 1999, when Mike McCue and Angus Davis left Internet pioneer Netscape Communications to start their own company, they adopted a simple motto: Only consider ideas that are big enough to make your head hurt. Ultimately, they founded TellMe Networks with the goal of making the Internet available to people everywhere via voice interactions. It was a precursor of Siri. They later sold the company to Microsoft.

A number of the suggestions we received in response to our What Should We Do With Watson? contest followed the same directive. They’re big, they’re bold, and some of them make your head hurt. For example, this comment from Hemant Shah, an M.D. and medical informatics researcher at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit: “Watson should be deployed to answer: ‘What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?” he wrote, quoting from the science fiction classic, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “I’m being funny, but I’m also serious. You have to take on the big challenges,” he says.

Hemant Shah

Hemant Shah

For this suggestion, Hemant is the second winner of our contest. His prize: an IBM Watson T-Shirt. If you want to browse through the more than 280 suggestions we have received since we launched the contest on Dec. 17, read here and here. Better yet, suggest an idea of your own.

To learn more about Watson and the new era of computing, read Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing.   

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When I first read Hemant’s suggestion, I laughed. But then I reconsidered. Why shouldn’t we ask for a smart machine’s help in answering some of the great puzzles of the universe? Over time, with a nearly endless supply of information and a lot of training and interactions with data and humans, Watson will develop an incredibly broad and deep reservoir of knowledge—far more than any human could possess. Potentially, some of these machines will actually become wise. After all, experience, knowledge, the ability to reason and a highly developed sense of context are the foundations of wisdom, so it’s not too crazy to think that Watson will eventually have some measure of wisdom.

Still, I see Watson as a super-sophisticated tool to augment our thinking and help us live better—rather than a substitution for human thought. Envision a Socratic Watson, engaging in dialogues with us; challenging our thinking; probing. That’s the kind of wisdom that Watson could provide.

Hemant suggested some other ideas, too. He has ideas on how Watson can be used in healthcare. “We can have powerful, patient-oriented tools that change the nature of healthcare globally,” he says. Another focus is on the role that Watson could play in bridging between a government and its citizens. What about a dashboard, powered by Watson, that leaders could use to evaluate potential actions and discover beforehand the likely impacts on different types of people? Citizens could use the same artificial intelligence system to evaluate the short- and long-term ramifications of policy proposals on them as individuals. This tool could help make democracy much more effective.

Other commenters had their own outsized ambitions for Watson. A guy who only gave his name as “Jim,” wrote:  My thought is we should use Watson as a thinking assistant based on all of the collective historical knowledge we have at its disposal. I see Watson at a turning point for mankind.” One question he’d like to ask Watson: “What … top three things should we humans be refocusing on to improve our fellow man?” Others suggested putting Watson to work on climate change, world hunger, poverty and war.

Some of the suggestions were truly meant to be funny. For example, this one from Mike Kelly: “I think Watson could replace a psychotherapist. Watson would listen emphatically for 45 minutes, and every time the patient paused, Watson would utter something like ‘uh huh,’ ‘I see,’ or ‘tell me more about it.’ … It could be done much more cheaply than a real therapist with about the same effect.”

That one doesn’t exactly make my head hurt, but, still, I plan on sending Mike a Watson T-Shirt.

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July 30, 2014
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February 11, 2014
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I would like to see a collaboration between Watson and Stephen Hawking

Posted by: Daniel Westcott
February 11, 2014
4:35 pm

ask watson “What Should We Do With Watson?” and “what does the future hold for mankind?” and “what charity would it have invested the money from the jeopardy match it won in?” and of course “what is the meaning of life?” and “Is there an afterlife?” and “how long will mankind exist”

Posted by: Daniel Westcott
February 5, 2014
2:35 pm

I think you are accepting ideas for “What Should We Do With Watson?” Contest: Big Ideas Run Wild!:

IDEA: end discrimination…how many individuals on your Watson development team were of African descent?

Posted by: Valentina
January 30, 2014
10:14 am

Create by play. When we were children, imagination and ideas were created through the means of play. This expression of freedom and boundless opportunities has resulted in real world application. Let’s allow Watson to “play”.

To begin, apply IBM’s S3 (Smart Surveillance Suite) as the means for Watson’s inspirations. This integration would allow Watson to see an image and select the dominate object within. From this, Watson will parse is references for such objects learning is meaning, shape, history and purpose. Watson could then extrapolate its learning and “create” images or poetic ideas from its other artistic knowledge. Watson could pull color pallets from Sisley, Renoir, coupled with the words structure from Proust or Shakespeare. The end result would be a work from Watson’s “imagination” that could inspire and transform a way we think or see the world.

Posted by: Paul Gordon
January 29, 2014
9:42 am

Is there an Ask Watson app? Give the users the ability to ask problem-solving questions that we deal with everyday. Perhaps limit it at first to project related issues and challenges, choices with associated risks and return, people management challenges with result related decisions. Picture a real-time chat with multiple people from didn’t organizations collaborating and problem solving a significant issue, why not bring Watson into the chat and have him participate as a member of the team? There are a lot of day to day real life examples in business where collaborating and brainstorming ideas is still a part of problem solving – allow Watson to tap into those experiences and participate as a member of the team.

Posted by: Dave Angley
January 29, 2014
9:38 am

Fix the IRS tax code, optimize government agencies and lower the US government debt

Posted by: Chris
January 29, 2014
2:41 am

Watson could become the Internet site that matches problem-solving consumer demands with best sources of supply in the evolving demand and supply economy.

Posted by: Craig Moore
January 29, 2014
12:36 am

Watson should be turned loose on the US patent system. IBM has been the world leader in patents for 21 consecutive years and that’s despite the 5 year turn around time from filing to approval. Imagine how accelerated that could be when Watson devours the current backlog. Reading/writing disclosure requires a whole different legal language that has a high learning curve. Not only could Watson’s natural language processing help find prior art, it could also help inventors strengthen their disclosures.

Posted by: Tynan Garrett
January 28, 2014
4:42 pm

Encore performance — week of Jeopardy!

Posted by: Dee
January 28, 2014
2:15 pm

Just unplug Watson and launch plan B. of course must be increased bet. otherwise, this confirms that only human stupidity and the universe are infinite.

Posted by: toba
January 28, 2014
10:06 am

I’ve recently moved and will be looking to buy a house, but all of the things that go into the decision will probably make my head hurt. Plus, houses seem to go on and off the market almost in real time, and the processes of financial planning and of negotiating the purchase contract are not that easy.

It would be great if Watson could help me with all of these things: real estate agent, negotiator, financial planner. An agent that understands the environment but also my desires, risk tolerances, and emotions.

Posted by: Lav
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February 26, 2014
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