Does Watson Think?

There has been a lot in the news about Watson. One article on CNN says “Watson doesn’t really ‘think’ anything, and it struggles with simple questions that most humans can answer without a second thought.” They continue, “a question like ‘If a snowman melts and later refreezes, does it turn back into a snowman?’ would be nearly impossible for a statistical reasoning program to tackle.”

Another article on NPR compares Watson to a plant. “Watson, biologically speaking, if you get my drift, is a plant. Watson is big and it is rooted. Like all plants, it is deaf, blind, and immobile; it is basically incapable of directing action of any kind on the world around it.” Continuing, “Giving a plant a camera won’t make it see, and giving it language won’t let it think. Which is just a way of reminding us that Watson understands no language. Unlike the ant, who acts as though it has reasons for its actions, Watson acts like a plant that talks.”

I think both authors are pretty glib at stating that Watson doesn’t think like us. I am not entirely convinced. When Deep Blue defeated Kasparov in chess, it was stated that Deep Blue doesn’t play chess like a person plays chess. This is true. Deep Blue simply tries all of the possibilities, good, bad, and stupid. Chess masters don’t even see bad moves. Watson is another matter. Sure it compares the words in the question to a big database, but it is doing probabilistic reasoning at its core. This is exactly what people do. So Watson can’t handle very abstract questions, like the concept of melting snowmen, but could a child who has never experienced snow make this leap? We make this leap because we’ve been presented, throughout our life, with a regular universe and our brain has made an internal model of that universe. Watson, too, has an internal model for its universe but the difference is that Watson’s universe is sensory impoverished and conceptually limited.

Watson certainly cannot think as well as we humans, but that is a limitation more of its hardware and the training environment that it is in. But in many ways, Watson thinks just like us.


About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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One Response to Does Watson Think?

  1. Nick says:

    It seems to me that the reporters whom state Watson is incapable of thinking don't quite understand how their own thought processes work.

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