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First posted on Venture Valkyrie on 01/21/2013

Lisa Suennen, The Venture Valkyrie

This article also ran in Healthcare IT News.

OMG and gag me with a spoon. I just read a Fortune article called, “Teaching IBM’s Watson the meaning of OMG” and I had a pretty good chuckle.  The article discusses how the “final frontier” in machine intelligence is teaching computers not just words, but the subtle differences in meaning that make language rich, powerful and specific.  I have often written about the intersection of language and healthcare (one of my most popular posts ever was about the application of Rap Genius’ Internet annotation concept to healthcare communication), but this Fortune article really made clear to me how far we have NOT come.

Our entrepreneurial society worships science and technology but puts so little value on the soft sciences, the communication arts.  And yet, Watson has proven for us all once again that technology without humanity is incapable of solving the world’s problems, trapped as it is in its own syntax without context.   Yes, man may be replaced by machine in many instances—already has in some cases—but in the end someone has to teach that machine to understand the human condition in order to realize its special purpose.  Yes, yes, you engineers and physicians are swell, but give me an old fashioned English major any day of the week.  Like, totally.

Meanwhile a mountain of scientists, doctors and their minions are busily working away to make themselves obsolete-ish through the education of Watson, IBM’s super duper computer.  By filling Watson’s brain with the world’s array of medical literature, these dudes in lab coats can totally improve patient img-mens-ipad-labcoatdiagnosis and treatment planning, y’know.  But not so fast white guys in white coats; turns out Watson might work great when one is speaking the King’s English, but might not be quite so bitchin’ when the patient at hand is speaking actual American in one of its many forms, like y’know?

According to the article:  “The biggest difficulty for Brown (aka Eric Brown—Watson’s overlord), as tutor to a machine, hasn’t been making Watson know more but making it understand subtlety, especially slang. ‘As humans, we don’t realize just how ambiguous our communication is,’ he says.”

39559252-urban-dictionaryThe article goes on to talk about how Brown attempted to teach Watson the Urban Dictionary, which is the Internet’s current most utilized slang repository.  However, according to the article, Watson wasn’t able to quite connect with terms like OMG or “hot mess.” Moreover, “Watson couldn’t distinguish between polite language and profanity — which the Urban Dictionaryis full of. Watson picked up some bad habits from reading Wikipedia as well. In tests it even used the word “bullshit” in an answer to a researcher’s query.” OMG, Watson, I’m sure! No way!

The article on Watson’s OMG moment suggests that the programming work being done to make Watson the hospital’s uber-diagnostic & therapeutic advice tool won’t require that it be conversant in Valley-speak or other versions of American slang, but I’m not so sure that’s true.  Patients don’t come in and report they are in the throes of a myocardial infarction; they say they feel like they’re gonna barf and there is a vise in their chest.  Unless Watson gets caught up quickly with the subtleties of human language, there is a still going to be a human intermediary required to translateScreen+shot+2012-09-22+at+9.12.16+AM those words into something Watson can understand; and thank goodness for that, because a little empathy and a pat on the hand are also nice touches in the ER.  No one wants to look up at their attending and see the computer spinny wheel of death in the place of eyes.

But I have to admit I love the idea of teaching Watson slang so it can commune with the people on their own terms.  Can’t you just picture the perfection of Watson, ensconced in a San Fernando Valley area hospital, exclaiming these immortal words:

“Okay, fine
Fer sure, fer sure
She’s a valley girl
And there is no cure”

Ps—if you’re too young to remember Moon Unit and Frank Zappa’s song Valley Girl, well, gag me with a spoon; watch it now to round out your pop culture education: