Thursday, February 17, 2011

What does Watson's victory on Jeopardy mean for libraries?

Here are some of the early reactions to the victory of IBM's Watson on Jeopardy.

John Markoff in the NYTimes on 2/14/11 quotes John Seely Brown, “The essence of being human involves asking questions, not answering them,” In today's paper, Markoff writes, "Watson, specifically, is a “question answering machine” of a type that artificial intelligence researchers have struggled with for decades — a computer akin to the one on “Star Trek” that can understand questions posed in natural language and answer them." Markoff also reports on IBM's plans for Watson, the company, "plans to announce that it will collaborate with Columbia University and the University of Maryland to create a physician’s assistant service that will allow doctors to query a cybernetic assistant. The company also plans to work with Nuance Communications Inc. to add voice recognition to the physician’s assistant, possibly making the service available in as little as 18 months.
“I have been in medical education for 40 years and we’re still a very memory-based curriculum,” said Dr. Herbert Chase, a professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University who is working with I.B.M. on the physician’s assistant. “The power of Watson- like tools will cause us to reconsider what it is we want students to do.”
I.B.M. executives also said they are in discussions with a major consumer electronics retailer to develop a version of Watson, named after I.B.M.’s founder, Thomas J. Watson, that would be able to interact with consumers on a variety of subjects like buying decisions and technical support."

James Weinheimer, Director of Library and Information Services at the American University of Rome, wrote on 2/9/11, "the traditional reference questions termed "ready-reference" are probably already gone from the reference desk. But questions that demand more thought and require a deeper understanding will (I hope!) always be asked and I don't see how a computer can answer those."

To me the most interesting words here are from Chase, “the power of Watson- like tools will cause us to reconsider what it is we want students to do.” He is talking about medical education, but what would this mean in the liberal arts?

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