Wake Up Time: IBM Watson and Real Journalists

August 11, 2018

I read “IBM Has a Watson Dilemma.” I am not sure the word “dilemma” embraces the mindless hyperbole about Vivisimo, home brew code, and open source search technology. The WSJ ran the Watson ads which presented this Lego collection of code parts one with a happy face. You can check out the Watson Dilemma in your dead tree edition of the WSJ on page B1 or pay for online access to the story at www.wsj.com.

The needle point of the story is that IBM Watson’s push to cure cancer ran into the mushy wall composed of cancerous cells. In short, the system did not deliver. In fact, the system created some exciting moments for those trying to handcraft rules to make Dr. Watson work like the TV show and its post production procedures. Why not put patients in jeopardy? That sounds like a great idea. Put experts in a room, write rules, gather training data, and keep it update. No problem, or so the received wisdom chants.

The WSJ reports in a “real” news way:

…Watson’s recommendations can be wrong.

Yep, hitting 85 percent accuracy may be wide of the mark for some cognitive applications.

From a practical standpoint, numerical recipes can perform some tasks to spin money. Google ads work this magic without too much human fiddling. (No, I won’t say how much is “too much.”)

But IBM believed librarians, uninformed consultants who get their expertise via a Gerson Lehrman phone session, and from search engine optimization wizards. IBM management did not look at what search centric systems can deliver in terms of revenue.

Over the last 10 years, I have pointed out case examples of spectacular search flops. Yet somehow IBM was going to be different.

Sorry, search is more difficult to convert to sustainable revenues than many people believe. I wonder if those firms which have pumped significant dollars into the next best things in information access look at the Watson case and ask themselves, “Do you think we will get our money back?”

My hunch is that the answer is, “No.”

For me, I will stick to humanoid doctors. Asking Watson for advice is not something I want to do.

But if you have cancer, why not give IBM Watson a whirl. Let me know how that works out.

Stephen E Arnold, August 11, 2018

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