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.
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.
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.