In my “Why Watson is Important” post, I asked, “If, instead of general knowledge questions, Watson were optimized to do computer support, teach a class, or practice law, how long until those sorts of jobs start to be done by computers?”
“I think that’s a little paranoid,” Sarkar said.
Essentially, Watson is analogous to a GPS system for navigating unstructured information, such as the mess that is the Web. The computer was endowed with the ability to process natural language — in this case questions — and browse the web for answers. It then ranked possible answers as the most likely.
While this ability to churn through the mass of information on the Web gave Watson an edge over its competitors, it was far from perfect, as its infamous answer of Toronto in a Final Jeopardy question (In the category of “U.S. Cities,” the question was: “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle.”)
Where Watson falls down, then, is its inability to separate the ludicrous answers from the plausible answers in its Web search. Therefore, Sarkar says:
“I think this is really a tool that can assist knowledge workers, but isn’t going to replace them outright. Just like we won’t let a GPS drive our car by itself, we’re not going to turn over legal advice to computer. It’s just not ready for prime time, and won’t be in 10 years.”
Sarkar’s thinking here is linear. My GPS can’t drive my car, but there will be automatic automobile systems in 10 years, so his analogy gives small comfort. Likewise, Watson will not remain frozen, only as capable in 10 years as it is today. Watson and its descendent’s will continue to be refined and improved – both hardware and software.
in a couple of decades we’ll probably all have a Watson equivalent in our pockets — or maybe embedded in our skulls, who knows — but it likely won’t have taken most of our jobs.
Either version of the future – where computers do most knowledge work and probably most physical work too – or where upgraded humans get the work… either is a pretty big deal. Interesting times are ahead.