IBM’s ‘Dr. Watson’ may have been misguided from the start

If IBM’s Watson goes down as an early failure of AI in healthcare, the fumble may be recorded as an unforced error made by humans who were determined to position the company as the first serious player on the field.  

Or, as one wry observer put it: “I think that IBM is excellent at using their sales and marketing infrastructure to convince people who have asymmetrically less knowledge to pay for something.”

The quote (or paraphrase) is replayed in a podcast posted at Mind Matters, which is run by the Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence.

In the 15-minute conversation, host Robert Marks, the center’s director and senior fellow, discusses Watson’s “flop in medicine” with Pomona College economist Gary Smith.

At one point Marks suggests the problem may have been as simple as IBM’s failure to follow the lead of Google in tuning the accuracy of search results to the quality of each user’s query.

“When you google something, you have to be pretty specific with the keywords that you enter,” Marks says. “Maybe these doctors and physicians just don’t know the right keywords to enter.”

“I don’t think it’s that,” Smith replies. “I think the problem goes much, much deeper in the sense that … all that computers could come back with is output. They don’t know which output is relevant and which output is irrelevant.”

Soon after, Marks gets to the quote about sales and marketing. Attributing it to Chamath Palihapitiya, Marks says the influential venture capitalist said—in so many words—that IBM Watson appeals to stupid people.

“He said it so nicely, though …”

Hear the whole thing: