Remember Watson?


How could anyone forget the IBM super computer that beat the world’s best Jeopardy players. In February it will be three years ago in my post Reference Librarian vs. Computer! I wrote;

…Watson will replace the reference librarian, because this computer has a million times more data in its memory, can respond to reference questions posed in spoken language, and provide a set of possible answers from which the inquirer can choose, with probabilities of accuracy for each answer. When was the last time you heard of a reference librarian giving a library customer several possible answers to a question?

Watch for yourself what Watson can do, and see what IBM has done, then tell me that reference librarians will not be replaced in the next 10 years.

Watch “Jeopardy” and see Watson in action – if you dare.

Last week the Wall Street Journal, IBM Watson’s Next Venture: Fueling New Era of Cognitive Apps Built in the Cloud by Developers, reported that IBM “announced that, for the first time, it will make its IBM Watson technology available as a development platform in the cloud, to enable a worldwide community of software application providers to build a new generation of apps infused with Watson’s cognitive computing intelligence.”

OK, IBM is trying to figure out how to recoup their jillion dollar investment, but what does that mean for librarians? Cognitive computer apps – WOW! That sounds both exhilarating and ominous. Computer and mobile apps are already amazing, like augmented reality apps 21st Century Libraries Look Like: Augmented Reality, so how much better could “cognitive” apps be?

The WSJ article goes on to elaborate that;

“By sharing IBM Watson’s cognitive abilities with the world, we aim to fuel a new ecosystem that accelerates innovation, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit,” said Michael Rhodin, Senior Vice President, IBM Software Solutions Group. “With this move, IBM is taking a bold step to advance the new era of cognitive computing. Together with our partners we’ll spark a new class of applications that will learn from experience, improve with each interaction and outcome, and assist in solving the most complex questions facing the industry and society.

IBM is unveiling its new ecosystem vision with three business partners that have developed early versions of Watson-powered apps, targeted to enter the market in 2014:

Fluid Retail: Fluid, which builds online shopping experiences for retail businesses to drive customer engagement and conversion, is developing the Fluid Expert Personal Shopper(sm) powered by IBM Watson. The app calls upon Watson’s ability to understand the nuances of human language and uncover answers from Big Data. Consumers who use Fluid’s app will interact with rich media and dialogue with Watson, as their newfound “cognitive, expert personal shopper.” The Fluid app incorporates the information users share and questions they ask to help them make smart, satisfying purchases by putting a knowledgeable sales associate in the hands of consumers, on demand.

MD Buyline: This provider of supply chain solutions for hospitals and healthcare systems is developing an app to allow clinical and financial users to make real-time, informed decisions about medical device purchases, to improve quality, value, outcomes and patient satisfaction. Hippocrates powered by IBM Watson will provide users with access to a helpful research assistant that provides fast, evidence based recommendations from a wealth of data, to help ensure medical organizations are making the best decisions for their physicians’ and patients’ needs.

Welltok: A pioneer in the emerging field of Social Health Management(TM), Welltok is developing an app that will create Intelligent Health Itineraries(TM) for consumers. These personalized itineraries, sponsored by health plans, health systems and health retailers, will include tailored activities, relevant content and condition management programs, and will reward users for engaging in healthy behaviors. Consumers who use Welltok’s app — CafeWell Concierge powered by IBM Watson — will participate in conversations about their health with Watson. By leveraging Watson’s ability to learn from every interaction, the app will offer insights tailored to each individual’s health needs. [Emphasis added.]

Sounds somewhat Orwellian doesn’t it.

Since its introduction in 2011, IBM Watson has evolved from a first-of-a-kind status, to a commercial cognitive computing system. Watson has gained a 240 percent improvement in system performance, and a reduction of 75 percent in the physical requirements needed to run the system which can now operate from a single Power 750 server with Linux from a cloud computing environment.

Using advances in natural language processing and analytics, Watson can process information similar to the way people think, representing a significant shift in the ability for organizations to quickly analyze, understand and respond to vast amounts of Big Data. The ability to use Watson to answer complex questions posed in natural language with speed, accuracy and confidence has enormous potential to improve decision making across a variety of industries from healthcare to retail, telecommunications and financial services.

… and ordinary information access? How long before Watson begins to tackle the ever increasing and overwhelming volume of information in our every-day life? When it does it will be stepping into the librarian’s domain.

After the final results of the Watson – Ken Jennings Jeopardy challenge was over in which Watson walked away with the money, my follow-up post, And The Winner Is….., observed;

What if a Watson computer could significantly narrow the possible information retrieved from a search, rank those selections based on probability of being a match for the most appropriate and accurate information? Wouldn’t that drastically reduce the information overload? The volume of information is not likely to decrease significantly any time in the future, so having a computer to sort through relevant information, select the most appropriate and even recommend statistically which is best – isn’t that a good thing?

And concluded that post with a challenge – of sorts – that bears repeating.

While the future appears bleak for “reference librarian” functions in light of Watson computers, doesn’t it make sense to embrace the change and use it to the benefit of the library customer? (With the same spirit Bunny did with EMERAC.) Isn’t that what we’re all about? Or are we about protecting our jobs and elite “librarian” status? Are we about change and progress in library services? Or are we about trying to preserve the past elite status of librarianship?

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