IBM has had to wash its supercomputer Watson’s mouth with some digital cleansing soap after it picked up profane language from the Urban Dictionary. Eric Brown, Watson’s ‘parent’ at IBM, ended up having to give it a spanking to make it forget the language that made it act like a rude child.
“As humans, we don't realize just how ambiguous our communication is,” said Brown to CNN in an interview about Watson, the supercomputer he’s helping build at IBM. Brown has been attempting to tutor the super machine – that has defeated several human opponents in the game of ‘Jeopardy!’ in 2011 – to converse like a human being.
While a supercomputer can converse with you, understand what you’re saying and reply accordingly, it seems that making a machine learn subtlety is probably worse than raising a kid in a way that he won’t point out to your grand aunt that she’s hopelessly overweight. Brown learnt this the hard way after he took up the ultimate challenge of making Watson converse applying everyday slang language using the Urban Dictionary as a yardstick two years ago.
'Oh Dear! Did he just say that?'
For those not in the know, UrbanDictionary.com is a large online dictionary that comprises of everyday words, abbreviations and slangs used by the youth (well, mainly the youth) all around the world. The dictionary is built using submissions that pour in by the thousands everyday for words you’ve never even heard about. Even everyday words and names take up a whole new meaning. Take for example the Urban Dictionary definition of Donald Trump. It reads, “Living proof that money can't buy good hair.”
The website even describes itself plainly as, “A place formerly used to find out about slang, and now a place that teens with no life use as a burn book to whine about celebrities, their friends, etc., let out their sexual frustrations, show off their racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-(insert religion here) opinions, troll, and babble about things they know nothing about.”
Not surprisingly, Watson picked up all the words as was expected from a good, smart computer. The problem was that it could not differentiate between polite language and the profane one Urban Dictionary is full of. Urban Dictionary does have some really helpful everyday definitions for everyone who’s trying to fit in with the ‘it’ crowd, but most humans would know about what to say when to avoid awkward silences and painful conversations.
Because awkwardness, guilt and embarrassment do not figure in Watson’s scheme of things, the supercomputer would spout wise-guy comments at its researchers. Watson even replied with a nonchalant “bullshit” to one query. Brown reveals that Watson picked up a similar bad habit after reading through Wikipedia.
The haggard and hassled 35-member team that worked with Brown developed a filter to keep Watson from swearing and wiped its memory completely off Urban Dictionary slang. Now only if you could do that with some human beings in real life. Ah, well.
Watson is now being used to diagnose patients in hospitals by going through their medical histories. That would be the supercomputer’s day job. It also masquerades as a game show participant, beating human competitors at ‘Jeopardy!’
Brown may have lost this battle, but the challenge to build a computer that will actually hold a conversation like a human being continues.