Watching Watson, IBM's semantically adept (and seemingly endlessly informed) software answer questions on Jeopardy is great fun. We can even relate to Watson as a persona, feeling sorry for him when he gets an answer wrong (not very often) and feeling pleased for him when he wins.
But last week I got to see a demonstration of Watson doing something genuinely useful -- Jeopardy for Watson is a fun way of demonstrating some of his skills, but his real purpose lies elsewhere.
A medical doctor told about feeding Watson all the information that a medical student, ending his second year, would know. (That's the part where you read these huge textbooks, memorize a lot, and pass tests.) The next thing is to feed him clinical data bases (which might include what drugs are used for what, patient symptoms and records, and what causes a successful outcome). That's a work in progress.
Already Watson can answer some medical questions. He's not going to replace doctors, but he will provide enormous amounts of quickly processed information so the doctor can make a more educated decision.
Of course Watson's combination of machine intelligence, fast processing, and subtle semantic processing (he can learn jargon, slang, and new vocabularies) can be applied to many fields.
Think of anything where there's a huge and growing body of knowledge and an understanding of what the rules for identifying, collecting, processing, and inferring about that knowledge might be. Various research fields from oil exploration to pharmaceuticals (new drug gesting), come to mind.
The application I would really like to use Watson (or one of his offspring) for is the one that is the "real" version of Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age," where A Young Lady's Primer contains all of the knowledge of the world and can answer any question. In that case, the Primer couldn't -- a talented actress was connected to the Primer to provide the answers. Watson today is programmed to focus his inteligence on specific domains of knowledge. But just what he does in his Jeopardy persona could answer most of the questions a bright ten year old might ask -- when we can make him -- or his use through a personal knowledge cloud -- much cheaper.
Personally I can't wait!