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‘Elementary, my dear Watson’

By Ernie Bush

March 29, 2011
|  The Bush Doctrine | My column for this issue was originally intended to be a learned monograph on advanced analytics and statistical assessment of multi-parameter in vitro screening results. Exciting stuff, eh?! It was nearly finished when its trajectory was violently disrupted by the television game show “Jeopardy! The IBM Challenge.”

As you probably know, the Jeopardy! IBM Challenge was a recreation of the normal Jeopardy! TV show, with the delicious twist that one of the contestants was a specially built IBM supercomputer named Watson. The other two contestants—Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter—were the best to ever play the game (Jennings had the longest consecutive winning streak; Rutter had won the most money). The question wasn’t just whether a computer could correctly interpret the game questions, query its database and formulate an answer, but also whether it could do all that in a short enough period of time to buzz in before these two champions.

The event was widely cast as a classic man vs machine challenge (think John Henry) and indeed did capture the public’s imagination as attested by the large TV audiences. Watson won the competition, rather convincingly, although not without some amusing mistakes. A seemingly straightforward question about a North American city with two airports saw both human contestants correctly answer “Chicago,” whilst Watson fumbled: “What is Toronto?????”

Meta Meaning

So what is the meaning of this both historically and, shall we say, metaphysically?

Although calculating devices have been around for centuries, computers as we think of them had their theoretical underpinnings defined in the late 1930s in work attributed to Alan Turing. However, the architecture where code and data are read/written from a common storage medium, and utilized in virtually all current computing devices, is that described by John von Neumann roughly a decade later in 1947.

IBM built and sold it first mainframe in 1951 and sponsored a series of highly publicized computer vs human chess matches in the 1980s and ’90s, ending with the win by the computer Deep Blue over world chess champion Garry Kasparov in May 1997. Therefore in roughly a 75-year time span humans have developed computerized systems from crude (but effective) mechanical computing devices to systems whose intellectual capacity exceeds that of the best quiz show players on earth. I’m sure that part of my fascination with this event derives from the fact that I was born in 1953, therefore my life has been witness to the computerization of society roughly since their commercial inception.

I doubt that Watson’s convincing victory will make any noticeable difference in our world as we drive to work next week, but at the end of final leg of the show, I could not help but feel we had just observed a fundamental shift in life as we know it. Of course, science fiction and modern film are full of story lines where computers as evil and sinister forces set out to dominate or eliminate mankind. Indeed, a large part of my own obsession with this outcome does in fact spring from anxiety about how this technology will be applied. IBM has taken great pains to say the first real world application of the Watson technology will be in medical diagnostics and they are clearly focusing on the good that can come from having such profound and interactive access to massive information.

Still if the history of human technological innovation has taught us anything, it is that new technology is usually a double-edged sword. So, while I am not too worried about iRobot or Terminator scenarios, I have a certain feeling of apprehension around how this technology could be used for less than altruistic outcomes. In particular, what worries me are certain Orwellian-Big Brother scenarios. Already there is a massive amount of data collected on all of us through various credit tracking and reporting systems, new and existing health monitoring systems, Web browsing/history trackers, etc. Previously we could at least fool ourselves into believing that there was no real mechanism to gather all this electronic information and make sense of it in a real time/conversational manner. Now with Watson and the advent of national health care record keeping systems, whole genome analysis by next-generation sequencing, and international financial tracking programs, I’m compelled to wonder: Is that still a challenge? Elementary, my dear Watson?

Ernie Bush is VP and Scientific Director of Cambridge Healthtech Associates. Email:

This article also appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Bio-IT World Magazine. Subscriptions are free for qualifying individuals. Apply today.  
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