Watson & the Valley Girl

LOL and gag me with a spoon.  I just read a Fortune article called, “Teaching IBM’s Watson the meaning of OMG” and I had a pretty good chuckle.  The article discusses how the “final frontier” in machine intelligence is teaching computers not just words, but the subtle differences in meaning that make language rich, powerful and specific.  I have often written about the intersection of language and healthcare (one of my most popular posts ever was about the application of Rap Genius’ Internet annotation concept to healthcare communication), but this Fortune article really made clear to me how far we have NOT come.

Our entrepreneurial society worships science and technology but puts so little value on the soft sciences, the communication arts.  And yet, Watson has proven for us all once again that technology without humanity is incapable of solving the world’s problems, trapped as it is in its own syntax without context.   Yes, man may be replaced by machine in many instances—already has in some cases—but in the end someone has to teach that machine to understand the human condition in order to realize its special purpose.  Yes, yes, you engineers and physicians are swell, but give me an old fashioned English major any day of the week.  Like, totally.

Meanwhile a mountain of scientists, doctors and their minions are busily working away to make themselves obsolete-ish through the education of Watson, IBM’s super duper computer.  By filling Watson’s brain with the world’s array of medical literature, these dudes in lab coats can totally improve patient diagnosis and treatment planning, y’know.  But not so fast white guys in white coats; turns out Watson might work great when one is speaking the King’s English, but might not be quite so bitchin’ when the patient at hand is speaking actual American in one of its many forms, like y’know?

According to the article:  “The biggest difficulty for Brown (aka Eric Brown—Watson’s overlord), as tutor to a machine, hasn't been making Watson know more but making it understand subtlety, especially slang. ‘As humans, we don't realize just how ambiguous our communication is,’ he says.”

The article goes on to talk about how Brown attempted to teach Watson the Urban Dictionary, which is the Internet’s current most utilized slang repository.  However, according to the article, Watson wasn’t able to quite connect with terms like OMG or "hot mess." Moreover, “Watson couldn't distinguish between polite language and profanity -- which the Urban Dictionary is full of. Watson picked up some bad habits from reading Wikipedia as well. In tests it even used the word "bull****" in an answer to a researcher's query.”  OMG, Watson, I’m sure! No way!

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