Watson Come Here – We Want You


Just as historic as Bell creating communication over wire, Marconi making it wireless, and Perotto creating the desktop computer, IBM has broken through technology to the holy grail of computing by inventing Watson – the cognitive computer. But they tell the story much better than anyone at their website. Visit it before you read on. Even the Watson website is impressive. How great must the computer be. Watson

A January 14 article from SmartData Collective – IBM Bets a Billion to Mobilize Watson Business Unit and Monetize Cognitive Computing – explains that IBM has now made Watson front and center in its empire.

Until now IBM Watson was important but had neither this stature in IBM’s organizational structure nor enough investment to support what the company proclaims is the third phase of computing. As IBM tells it, computing paradigms began with the century-old tabular computing, followed by the age of programmatic computing, in which IBM developed many products and advancements. The third phase is cognitive computing, an area in which the company has invested significantly to advance its technology. IBM has been on this journey for some time, long before the IBM Watson system beat humans on Jeopardy!. … Now IBM Watson is focused on reaching the full potential of cognitive computing.

I’ve been following IBM’s progress on Watson for some time, because it WILL have a profound affect on the role of librarians. Since I first ran across the brief article in early 2011 I knew that the world was on the brink of experiencing “thinking” computers. We have all seen movies about cognitive robots, Orwellian world domination by computers, and now there’s even a TV series with a robot police partner that has a soul – of sorts. So we have been fascinated with thinking computers for over a century. There’s even a movie in theaters now about a guy who falls in love with his smart phone – and it falls in love with him. [eyes rolling] As I’ve stated before, Jules Verne wrote “Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real.” so it should be no surprise that the thinking computer is now reality.

If IBM is right that cognitive computing will be the next wave of innovation in the industry and a new phase of computing, it has placed itself at the center of a substantial new market opportunity. Even at the most basic level to simplify the process of making information more available is what IBM Watson provides and our information optimization research finds is very important to 65 percent of organizations. [Emphasis added.]

IF IBM IS RIGHT…? Seriously! Did that young man just write that? How could ANYONE doubt that cognitive computing IS the next wave of innovation in computing? It is what the world has been waiting for with anticipation and dread. It will spell the beginning of awesome new capabilities for the individual, as well as businesses.

At the launch of the IBM Watson business unit, IBM Research’s Dr. Guruduth Banavar brought forward some of the latest thinking on cognitive science and the ability to teach machines to reason and … how it will impact roles and businesses in the next decade.

As it begins to scale its offering, part of IBM’s challenge is to manage the continuous information feeds that effectively make IBM Watson smarter. While IBM does not talk much about the content aspects of what is required, it is clearly more than just loading files, and these efforts are just as important as librarians are to libraries, whereby they are not just stewards to a collection of books but ensure the value and improvement of the library.

The author is stretching his expertise a bit to assume what the importance of the librarian is to the library, but it provides a great segway into how Watson has the potential to eliminate the reference librarian, and potentially other aspects of the library as well.

WatsonMedData This issue is not without controversy. On the Watson FB site is the diagram of Watson using natural language and evidence-based learning to crunch the world’s medical data. This obviously raises the age old question of security and privacy of individual medical records. The data has to come from somewhere. Is it possible that computers will decide they don’t need inferior human input? Yes, it probably is. Will it happen in the next 100 years? Who knows. The reality is Watson exists and it will change the way the world views information.

Would you rather “Ask a Librarian” with human limitations and biases with limited resources at your local library, or speak to a computer with almost infinite knowledge who will recommend resources and even tell you how confident it is that it will satisfy your question? Would you rather go to the Only Vanilla Ice Cream Store, or to Baskin & Robbins 31 Kinds?

This impending revolution in how people find information reminded me of Peter Brantley’s article from February, 2013 – You Have Two, Maybe Three Years… in which he stated;

The most serious threat facing libraries does not come from publishers, we argued, but from e-book and digital media retailers like Amazon, Apple, and Google. While some IFLA staff protested that libraries are not in the business of competing with such companies, the library representatives stressed that they are. If public libraries can’t be better than Google or Amazon at something, then libraries will lose their relevance. It’s good that the library e-book issue has heated up over the past year, and not just in the U.S. but globally.

But libraries have dithered for far too long – it is now time for action. No matter how glorious the vision of local 3D printing, community gaming, or how critical the literacy training and job assistance libraries offer, reading lies at the heart of the library mission – and as the world goes digital, we cannot let the library become a pile of dusty books. We must make the library the most cool and awesome space it has ever been.

But absent immediate innovation, libraries are going to be increasingly unable to meet the expectations of their patrons, and if such a breakthrough cannot come in the next two or three years, libraries risk losing their central place in the world of literature. That would be a great loss. [Emphasis added.]

Combine the threat to libraries from “e-book and digital media retailers” that Brantley addressed with the threat from Watson toward the reference role of libraries and it is obvious that libraries MUST reinvent themselves NOW! As I wrote last February; “This is by no means the first or even a new call to action, but … time is running out for libraries to find their place in the community they serve. I for one seriously wonder what it will take for library leaders to recognize the future challenges and adopt a vision to overcome them and save the library. Traditional librarianship is a relic of the past century. Creative and innovative thinking with visionary leadership and bold action is the only approach that will save libraries” in the 21st Century.

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[Read: Reference Librarian vs. Computer! February 16, 2011

And The Winner Is….. “The information seeker in 2015.” February 17, 2011

Remember Watson? November 18, 2013

The Future of Librarians? June 28, 2010

Technology Game Changers for Libraries June 26, 2012]

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Watson Come Here – We Want You

  1. If often hear people say “Well, large public libraries in urban settings may need to re-invent themselves, but here in my small community, my folks want traditional library services.” While I do not dispute the differences between communities, I am convinced that “traditional” library services are not in the best interest of the community, regardless of size. I think one of the roles the public library can play is to be the place where human contact happens: it could be the place where people receive training and one-on-one assistance; the place where a group meets to discuss mutual concerns and interests; a place where people explore, discover, and create content. And the librarian, the library staff, the person in the library, is the one who facilitates, who organizes, who coordinates, who makes these things happen. The librarian knows the community, its needs and its desires and it is the librarian — with her and his “creative and innovative thinking with visionary leadership and bold action” — who needs to find ways to satisfy that need for human contact.

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