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Futurist Friday: IBM Watson Applies for Membership in the Oxford Union

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

OK, I made that headline up. Oxford isn’t really in the position of having to decide whether to accept a computer program as a member of its prestigious debating society. (For one thing, Watson isn’t enrolled in the University. Yet.)

The amazing thing is that current events make my fictional story fall within the Cone of Plausibility.

Your Futurist Friday assignment: watch this video short (3.24 min) in which John Kelly, senior VP and director of IBM Research, introduces IBM Debating Technologies.

Perhaps IBM’s Watson (a cognitive computing program) isn’t up to Oxford standards quite yet, but it seems ready to go up against some credible high school debate teams. 

In any case, casting Watson as a “debater” is just a playful way of demonstrating the ability of cognitive computing to quickly scan, assess and filter masses of information (as shown in Watson’s running commentary on the process of building its arguments for the selected topic). It takes this kind of massive algorithmic power to make sense of the “big data” we are generating through our digital lives. 

 The kinds of search and summation Watson performs in this demonstration can be put to use by professionals in many fields. Including (potentially) museum staff looking to expand and supplement their research. As Kelly says at the end of this clip, “Its not man versus machine, it’s man and machine reasoning together.” Watson may be the ultimate research librarian of the future (especially if its summaries are supported with citations and links.) 

I can already hear the pre-echo of protest: “how does Watson know the source is credible?” “Watson isn’t generating insight or new knowledge–just regurgitating what it finds!.” 

Remember–cognitive computing is still in its infancy. Thinks what will happen when Watson grows up. And consider that it is pretty dang amazing that we are having this discussion at all.

The clip above is excerpted from a presentation given at a April 30, 2014 session of the Milken Institute Global Conference entitled “Why Tomorrow Won’t Look Like Today: Things that Will Blow Your Mind.” You can watch the full presentation to hear more about IBM’s vision for Watson, and other speakers on printing functional organs from living tissue and the prospect of asteroid mining. . 

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