What technology wants, What Watson means
Delaney Turner 270003RQ8K Delaney.Turner@ca.ibm.com | | Tags:  business_analytics ibmwatson
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I’m only 50 or so pages into Kevin Kelly’s new book, What Technology Wants, but I can already tell it’s going to be a fascinating read.
A timely one, too, given we're only a few weeks away from the showdown between Watson and its human challengers.
More on Watson further down. First, a description of Kelly's book straight from the publisher:
This provocative book...suggests that technology as a whole is not a jumble of wires and metal but a living, evolving organism that has its own unconscious needs and tendencies. Kevin Kelly looks out through the eyes of this global technological system to discover "what it wants." He uses vivid examples from the past to trace technology's long course and then follows a dozen trajectories of technology into the near future to project where technology is headed.Given this description and Kelly’s background as co-founder and former executive editor of Wired, I was surprised to on the first page that for most of his life he “owned very little, dropped out of college and for most of a decade wandered remote parts of Asia in cheap sneakers and worn jeans, with little time and no money.”1
Not surprisingly, though, this existence helped him develop an acute sense of the organic rhythms and reality of nature:
Living close to the land, I experienced the immediacy that opens up when the buffer of technology is removed. I got colder often, hotter more frequently, soaking wet a lot, bitten by insects faster, and synchronized quicker to the rhythm of the day and seasons.2Good technology "can lift your soul"
These experiences helped Kelly develop an appreciation for truly great technology:
If my travels in the old world had taught me anything, it was that aspirin, cotton clothing, metal pots and telephones are fantastic inventions. They are good...Anyone who has ever held a perfectly designed hand tool knows that it can lift your soul.3Now, before you think that sentence is too far "out there," consider this passage from a recent interview with former Apple CEO John Sculley on Steve Jobs' methodology:
Steve from the moment I met him always loved beautiful products, especially hardware. He came to my house and he was fascinated because I had special hinges and locks designed for doors. I had studied as an industrial designer and the thing that connected Steve and me was industrial design. It wasn’t computing...Steve had this perspective that always started with the user’s experience; and that industrial design was an incredibly important part of that user impression.Technology evolves like we do
In chapter three, History of the Seventh Kingdom, Kelly draws a convincing parallel between the evolution of genetic organisms (amoebas, zebras, your uncle Bernie) and the evolution of technology – the sum total of which he refers to as the technium. Consider this passage:
The two share many traits: The evolution of both systems moves from the simple to the complex, from the general to the specific, from uniformity to diversity, from individualism to mutualism, from energy waste to efficiency, and from slow change to greater evolvability.4A few sentences later, he explains how disparate ideas within the technium often merge into entirely new entities:
Most new ideas and new inventions are disjointed ideas merged. Innovations in he design of clocks inspired better windmills, furnaces engineered to brew beer turned out to be useful to the iron industry, mechanisms invented for organ making were applied to looms, and mechanisms in looms became computer software.5Is it me, or does this sound a lot like a mashup?
Language is technology is language
On the next page, Kelly explores the importance of language - specifically language as a technology:
A prime example would be the transformation of alphabets (strings of symbols not unlike DNA) into highly organized books, indexes, libraries and so on (not unlike cells an organisms).6Transitions, Kelly writes, are a key part of evolution. Just as single-celled organisms transform into multi-cell organisms (outlined on page 46), technological evolution drives a transformation from oral culture to writing and mathematical notation (outlined on page 47).
Language drives transition
No transition in technology, he continues, has affected our species, or the world at large, more than the creation of language:
Language enabled information to be stored in memory greater than an individual’s recall...The invention of writing systems for language and math structured this learning even more. Ideas could be indexed, retrieved, and propagated more easily. Writing allowed the organization of information to penetrate into many aspects of everyday life.6Where Watson and business analytics come in
This, I thought, is where Watson comes in. It's also, I thought, why Watson is so important, not only to the evolution of the technium, but also to business analytics. Here are three reasons why:
First, Watson relies on those highly organized books, indexes to find the responses to the Jeopardy! clues. As a self-contained system, its algorithms must be able to quickly access and analyze every piece of data from nearly infinite perspectives. It must also trust the accuracy of the data for its confidence algorithms to be of any value. This isn’t far removed from the queries you do on your structured corporate data every day, or the trust your users place in the data they receive from those queries.
Second, as odd as it may sound, you could view your data as a “living” entity in continual transformation. In nearly every organization, text now merges with audio, data cubes mesh with images to create entirely new sources of business insight. It's a much more accurate reflection of the world's activity and knowledge, and Watson must make sense of it to beat the world’s best. As a BI professional, you need to make sense of this same complex mix of data types to drive better business outcomes.
Finally, Watson is driving another important transformation in what many computer scientists see as the final frontier in human-computer interaction: solving natural language.
For we humans, language codifies knowledge, thereby enabling it to be shared down through generations and across different communities to share ideas and drive progress. In a similar vein, the most effective business analytics deployments rest on effective communication between IT and Business, in which definitions, expectations, time lines and thresholds are all commonly agreed upon and widely shared.
Should Watson beat the Jeopardy! champs it will show us the way to reach - and perhaps surpass - that final frontier. In doing so it has the potential to make world of insights instantly available to anyone who asks. And given how many questions come up in a typical business analytics deployment, that possibility should be enough to get anyone excited.