Watson Won But Didn’t Know It…

In the Opinion section of The Wall Street Jounral, John Searle, professor of philosophy at Cal, wrote a piece titled, Watson Doesn’t Know It Won on ‘Jeopardy!’ that was an interesting take on the highly publicized matchup between the IBM computer and human contestants.

“Watson did not understand the questions, nor its answers, nor that some of its answers were right and some wrong, nor that it was playing a game, nor that it won—because it doesn’t understand anything.”

Mr. Searle pointed out,”IBM’s computer was not and could not have been designed to understand. Rather, it was designed to simulate understanding, to act as if it understood. It is an evasion to say, as some commentators have put it, that computer understanding is different from human understanding. Literally speaking, there is no such thing as computer understanding. There is only simulation.”

The computer is what it is… a device that can manipulate symbols. Mr. Searle provided an interesting example — using a person locked in a room who knows no Chinese, but has a box full of Chinese symbols and an instruction book in English on how to manipulate them. Suppose that person gets so good at manipulating the symbols that the answers are indistinguishable — so all indications are the person understands when he really doesn’t.

Yup. That’s the scenario with IBM’s Watson.

But no worries. The key is to not take the results for more than they really are. The Watson demo was actually intended to… score one for humankind. In a full page newspaper ad appearing in The Wall Street Journal, IBM touts how “Watson’s advances in deep analytics — and its ability to interpret unstructured content and natural language — will now be director towards the world’s most enticing challenges (Healthcare, Finance and Customer Services).

Here’s a link to a 33-minute panel discussion (Final Jeopardy! and the Future of Watson).


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