Watson, the IBM supercomputer named after the company’s visionary founder, is probably best known for pummelling formidable human contestants on the US quiz show Jeopardy! Watson’s spectacular performance showed off its ability to master natural language, one of the thorniest challenges in computing.

But that was nearly four years ago and IBM’s showcase cognitive computing system is no longer playing games. The supercomputer, now sleeker and faster, is being put to myriad clever uses, from treating cancer to providing sophisticated advisory services for banks.

One obvious question that arises from this is, will systems like Watson put a lot of people out of work?

This was posed to Brad Becker, chief design officer for IBM, in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, the journal of the business school of the same name.

His answer was rather vague:

It’s funny, because I was looking at some material in the history of IBM, talking about computers back in the ’60s. There were all these discussions in the ’50s and ’60s about how these new computers were going to replace humans in the office, and there would be no more office jobs. I don’t know about you, but I work in offices and there are a lot of people there — and lots of computers, too.

Earlier in the interview Becker had unwittingly come a lot closer to an answer with his description of how Watson has recently been used to great effect in data science.

In a project with scientists from Baylor College of Medicine and IBM, Watson was used to identify proteins that modify p53, a crucial protein that, once mutated, can set the stage for cancerous tumour growth. The protein has been called “the guardian of the genome”.

Watson read every one of the 70,000 papers that have been published on p53 to predict proteins that turn the protein’s activity on or off. Not only did Watson turn up previously known facts, it also found six previously undiscovered connections that Becker described as “promising”.

Rather hauntingly, Baylor has estimated that it would take a human scientist nearly 38 years to read that number of papers.

Throughout the interview Becker expresses variations on his view that systems like Watson are, “based on the idea that technology should work for people not the other way round”.

Inevitably, though, comparisons between a supercomputer that is at the very beginning of its evolution and a flesh-and-blood human being, with its well mapped limitations, is never going to provide much reassurance.

The human mind, after all is, as Becker puts it:

… a very low-power, small, portable computer attached to a stomach that can run on berries and nuts.

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