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IBM's Watson can now debate any topic

By

May 9, 2014

IBM's Watson can now debate (Image: IBM)

IBM's Watson can now debate (Image: IBM)

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Watson, IBM's supercomputer made famous three years ago for beating the very best human opponents at a game of Jeopardy, now comes with an impressive new feature. When asked to discuss any topic, it can autonomously scan its knowledge database for relevant content, "understand" the data, and argue both for and against that topic.

Watson's DeepQA is arguably the world's best computer system at natural language processing by a wide margin, which is an extraordinarily complex field of artificial intelligence. Perhaps the major difficulty in understanding human language is the lack of "common sense" in today's computers. For all its number-crunching power, Watson cannot "understand" the questions it is asked, at least not in a traditional sense. The way in which Watson answers questions is closer to symbol manipulation than to the way you and I understand and process information, but the end results are often impressive.

Watson looks at the question it is being asked and groups words together, finding statistically related phrases. Thanks to a massively parallel architecture, it then simultaneously uses thousands of language analysis algorithms to sift through its database of 15 terabytes of human knowledge and find the correct answer. The more algorithms find the same answer independently, the more a certain answer is likely to be correct. This is how, back in 2011, it managed to win a game of Jeopardy against two human champions.

In a presentation at the the Milken Institute Global Conference, IBM senior vice president and director of research John Kelly III demonstrated how Watson can now list, without human assistance, what it believes are the most valid arguments for and against a topic of choice. In other words, it can now debate for or against any topic, in natural language.

A list of topics that Watson can debate (Image: IBM)

In a canned demonstration on stage, Watson was asked to present arguments for and against the sale of violent videogames to minors. After scanning Wikipedia for relevant information, Watson answered:

"I would like to raise the following points in support of the topic. Exposure to violent videogames results in increased physiological arousal, aggression-related thoughts and feelings as well as decreased social behavior. In addition, these violent games or lyrics actually cause adolescents to commit acts of real-life aggression. Finally, violent videogames can increase children's aggression.

On the other hand, I would like to note the following claims that oppose the topic. Violence in videogames is not causally linked with aggressive tendencies. In addition, most children who play videogames do not have problems. Finally, videogame play is part of an adolescent boy's normal social setting."

The answer wasn't just a mindless collage of sentences copied from various Wikipedia articles. Rather, in just a few seconds, Watson searched its sources for relevant information, scanned for arguments in favor and against the topic, selected what it believed were the strongest arguments, and then constructed sentences in natural language to illustrate the points it had selected.

For a computer that doesn't actually "understand" the questions it is being asked, this is a truly impressive achievement.

IBM believes that the technology behind Watson will prove very valuable in dealing with the exploding amount of information that we're currently facing. A fully automated system that can process huge amounts of data, extract information and find answers with a high degree of confidence could prove useful in a number of fields of human endeavor.

For instance, the system could have important applications in the medical arena. Oncologists could take a DNA profile from cancerous tissue, compare it to healthy tissue of the same organ, extract the mutations, and then use Watson to search the entire medical literature to find which specific combination of drugs will be best at targeting that specific mutation affecting that specific organ.

Back in February, IBM also announced it intends to use Watson to help countries in Africa find the answers to their development problems, with a focus on healthcare and education.

Watson is built on commercially available 750 Power servers, because IBM aims to market it to corporations in the future. The hardware to operate Watson at its minimum system requirements currently costs a relatively modest one million US dollars, but the price is expected to drop in the coming years.

The video below shows the new debating feature in action. The presentation starts at the 35 minute mark, the canned demonstration 46 minutes in.

Source: IBM via Kurzweil AI

About the Author
Dario Borghino Dario studied software engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin. When he isn't writing for Gizmag he is usually traveling the world on a whim, working on an AI-guided automated trading system, or chasing his dream to become the next European thumbwrestling champion.   All articles by Dario Borghino
16 Comments

Good bye to tech support and telemarketing in 10 to 20 years as soon as this is perfected and sold to global corporations.

eMike
9th May, 2014 @ 09:53 am PDT

About time, now we can replace lawyers with Watson.

Facebook User
9th May, 2014 @ 12:06 pm PDT

Many years ago science fiction author Isaac Asimov wrote a story called "Franchise" in which the fictional supercomputer "Multivac" determined the result of the 2008 US presidential election by questioning a single voter, Norman Muller, and using the data obtained to calculate the likely outcome of a "full" election.

Although initially reluctant, after "voting", Muller is very proud that the citizens of the United States had, through him, "exercised once again their free, untrammeled franchise" – a statement that is somewhat ironic as the citizens did not actually get to vote.

How long till reality catches up with art?

joeblake
9th May, 2014 @ 04:57 pm PDT

The couple times I have contacted tech support via email the human rep grabbed /maybe/ 2 or 3 keywords out of scanning my email and sent me a canned response. Watson couldn't do worse. Ditto for calling a company on the phone and trying to navigate their phone tree to do something simple.

In the corporate world there is a big need for people making decisions to be able to analyze a lot of data and/or send subordinates on tasks of fetching specific data points to assist a decision. I could see a lot of uses for Watson.

Daishi
9th May, 2014 @ 10:19 pm PDT

My experience in IT and processes leads me to believe that jobs are always at stake. The guys on top are sociopaths. I know them, and used to work for them.

eMike
9th May, 2014 @ 11:22 pm PDT

Clever IBM marketing, but I'm surprised how the entire world swallows it.

"Listing arguments" is hardly the same as "debating". Debating involves managing dialogue, tracking the opponent's train of thought, and counter-attacking. Listing arguments is basically an exercise in entity extraction, which has been around forever.

A canned demo without a possibility to inspect results means it's just as ready for the real world as the rest of Watson.

cattleherder
10th May, 2014 @ 01:34 am PDT

Now if it could examine the arguments it discovers, evaluate the supporting data for them in literature and statistics and alter it's knowledge base to reflect which side is probably correct (while allowing the possibility for new changes) it would be an even bigger deal.

Snake Oil Baron
10th May, 2014 @ 08:50 am PDT

Humans are finished.

Chris Hobson
10th May, 2014 @ 01:43 pm PDT

I guess Dario doesn't have the skills that Watson has, because he chose not to google the Watson's "arguments". If he did, he would easily find out that all of them were copied verbatim from various Wikipedia articles (sometimes old versions, because they used an offline copy).

Here they are:

PRO

http://wpedia.goo.ne.jp/enwiki/Video_game_controversy

http://dictionary.sensagent.com/ADOLESCENCES/en-en/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_game_controversies

and CON

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Console_game

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Theft_Childhood

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_game_controversies

Not to mention the fact that pro arguments 2 and 3 ignore the context of the sentence. In 2 Watson says exactly the opposite of what the author said (Watson ignores the start of the sentence: "However, it is highly debated whether...". In 3 the end of the sentence is ignored — "but that parents moderate the negative effects." Also, 3 basically repeats what 1 and 2 said.

Arguments con 2 and 3 are not logically sound.

Danila Medvedev
10th May, 2014 @ 02:20 pm PDT

"Costs one million dollars"

10 years from now... it will run on my phone :}

asdf
10th May, 2014 @ 02:37 pm PDT

Goodbye over paid lawyers, bankers and most business folk.

Mark Penver
12th May, 2014 @ 05:19 am PDT

I'll bet it can't assess it's own standards of analysis without logical fallacy.

machinephilosophy
12th May, 2014 @ 10:24 am PDT

Don;t be to impressed until we know the whole story!

I was disappointed when I learned the deceit concerning how Watson was presented on Jeopardy. They made it look like this machine understood the questions Alex was asking, and that Watson was "aware" enough to know when Alex had finished and it was time to race the contestants to "hit the buzzer" in order to answer.

You had to do some homework to find out that the questions were not verbally given to Watson and therefore the "racing the buzzer" to answer the questions was not what it appeared to be. Watson was nowhere near as intelligent as the TV show made it appear to be. But, this is typical of IBM over the years.

The fact of the matter is that Watson did not have the capability/intelligence to actually go head to head with the human contestants. It did have the capacity to dissect sentences and come up with reasonble information based on words in the sentence (just like above). In other words it was akin to a good, automated search engine operator.

What I find fascinating is that something like Siri is marketed as understanding language (might just be market ploy), but CAN take verbal commands, sort the information to make a decent response, fits in the palm of my hand, and keeps the conversation in context so multiple answer can be asked. Now Watson supposdely can give arguments for and against. If this is ACTUALLY (unlike the doctored Jeopardy presentation) what Watson can do, it seems to me to be just the next step of a natural tendency towards programming a machine to get a bit more out of a search engines results.

I am personally not too impressed in light of how much the small, hand held devices seem to b able to do on much less processing power/architecture.

Lbrewer42
12th May, 2014 @ 01:10 pm PDT

Ask it to argue for the existence of God. That might be interesting. I haven't heard any good ones yet.

warren52nz
12th May, 2014 @ 02:29 pm PDT

Lets see this on some Game show & speak to Watson via remote.

Radical

& 2 way for college lecture seris alone.

+ to beam visual data to class on topic X

Stephen N Russell
12th May, 2014 @ 03:39 pm PDT

www.talkigy.com aims to provide a relatively low-tech but effective chat bot technology - with the focus on making it easier for content authors to contribute content. Try debating the JFK assassination for example:

http://www.talkigy.com/chat/jfk-coup

Maulynvia Posting
2nd June, 2014 @ 06:06 am PDT
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