IBM’s Watson Can Now Make Logical Arguments

May 28th, 2014

IBM’s Watson, fresh off victories on Jeopardy!, and successfully diagnosing diseases, is now training for a skill that hits rather close to home–being able to debate and form legal arguments:

And now Big Blue has taken Watson technology one step further with a system that can form logical arguments for or against a complex issue–rather than just answering questions–once it absorbs relevant information.

At the Milken Institute’s annual conference in Beverly Hills, John Kelly III, IBM’s director of research, unveiled an artificial intelligence project called the Debater that has new capabilities to think—and argue– like a human. In a demonstration, Kelly asked the Debater to provide arguments for and against this statement: The sale of violent videogames to minors should be banned. The contraption scanned 4 million Wikipedia articles and narrowed them down to a handful that seemed most relevant. Then, in a synthesized voice, it spit out answers.

Among the reasons to support a ban: “Exposure to violent videogames can cause adolescents to commit acts of aggression in real life,” the Debater explained. ”On the other hand,” it went on, “the sale of violent videogames to minors has not been causally linked with aggressive tendencies.” Doing the research and rattling off several statements, pro and con, took about 45 seconds.

How does it work? Rather than retrieving stored information, and answering simple questions, it can develop arguments to resolve a complicated issue.

The technology breakthrough here is the ability to understand spoken and written language in context, then applying computing power to a question that arises from that language. The human brain is far better at contextual learning than computers, because we can almost instantly ascertain whether a word like “fair” pertains to a square deal or a carnival with a Ferris wheel. A few minutes of speech or a few paragraphs of writing might contain dozens of such associations, leaving a typical computer stupefied, no matter what its processing speed or RAM.

This will hit close to home, as these are skills that lawyers use daily.

Though, reflecting a point I’ve made several times–this isn’t about replacing humans. It’s about working with humans, and improving reasoning.

Kelly envisions the Debater having a seat at the table — either in the flesh, so to speak, or through the cloud — when people in disparate fields develop projects to solve complex problems. It can listen to conversations and contribute meaningful information through real-time data crunching. The Debater also learns as it listens, adding information gleaned from its human interlocutors to its gigantic database. “It’s not man versus machine,” Kelly insists. “It’s man and machine reasoning together.”

I, for one, welcome our new robotic overlords.