Monday, February 21, 2011

Watson and the Future of Everything: Continued

My posting has been scarce as of late. I've been involved with a project I wanted to finish as quickly as possible. Now I need to try to get back into a blogging rhythm. It's not always easy.

Last post was several days ago. (I'm being kind to myself.) It was Watson and the Future of Everything, in which I waxed poetic about the significance of IBM's Watson computer performing well on Jeopardy. I have seen various people express considerably less enthusiasm that I did, those people being concerned about the impact on jobs, and dissing on the Watson because it doesn't really understand, it just computes.

Both categories of Luddites are correct. Watson-like computers will enable people to me more productive in their work, and therefore more valuable in their work, and therefore better paid. Productivity generates wealth. Inefficiency breeds want.

And true enough: Watson doesn't really understand anything. It merely computes, sometimes badly. In that sense it is quite human.

IBM, on their website, offers three videos on three areas of application for Watson-like computers.

Healthcare: "Medical records, texts, journals and research documents are all written in natural language – a language that computers traditionally struggle to understand. A system that instantly delivers a single, precise answer from these documents could transform the healthcare industry."

Finance: "Enormous amounts of data are generated every day in the financial industry. Watson, the IBM computer system designed to compete on Jeopardy!, has the deep analytics capability that could help businesses extract knowledge from this data in order to identify patterns and make more informed financial decisions."

Customer Service: "IBM experts share their thoughts on how DeepQA technology could help transform the customer service industry into a faster, more accurate experience."

Wow!  Way to take something really exciting and make it boring. But IBM is a business and naturally focuses on those applications that can provide substantial return for all the money, time, and talent they have invested in Watson. When I was coming to know Watson, however, I was thinking differently. I was thinking that a Watson type computer could have kept Byron Case and Michael Ledford and a whole lot of other innocent people from ever being convicted.

Assume we have a computer that understands natural language and is designed to estimate probabilities of innocence. We would constantly feed it the latest findings in pathology, serology, ballistics, fingerprinting, fire science, and other forensic sciences. We would provide provide it with common sense insight into life, insight such as time cannot run backwards, people cannot be in more than one place at the same time, consistent stories are more likely to be correct than ever changing stories, snitches are usually less reliable than priests, confessions that violate physical laws are probably false.

Even before arrest, all parties involved in a case can feed Watson case information, ask Watson to provide a probability of guilt and/or innocence, and ask Watson to substantiate its assessment.

In the case of Byron Case, Watson could read the police report that said the victim was found with her eyes open at 3:47 AM, and the ME report that reported her corneas were clear. Watson could compare that  information against arcane knowledge (unknown to anybody involved in the case at the time) that corneas cloud over in less than three hours after death if the eyes remain open. Watson would realize that the victim died some time around midnight, that the state's primary witness claimed she actually witnessed the murder near sunset, and conclude that the state's primary witness was unreliable. Watson would realize further, from reading the police reports, that Byron had an unassailable alibi for the actual time of the murder. The probability of Byron's  innocence would be near 100%. The probability of his guilt would correspondingly be near 0%. Assuming the State was acting in good faith, they would not even charge Byron, much less convict him and sentence him to life without parole.

In the case of Michael Ledford, Watson could read descriptions of the fire scene photos and learn that the circuit breaker panels shows evidence of smoke damage within the panel but not around the panel. Watson could also read that those smoke patterns show some of the breakers popped to the closed position during the fire and some did not. Watson could read conflicting theories on how the fire started (either a candle tossed into a living room chair or a short in a living room light circuit.) Looking through the world's knowledge, it would find no correlation between candles thrown into chairs in a living room and simultaneous internal heating in a circuit breaker box in a bedroom. It would find, however, that on occasion circuit breakers fail to pop when the circuit shorts, and that causes them to overheat and smoke. That results in evidence of a fire both near the short and in the circuit breaker box. Even though the Michael Ledford had confessed (then quickly recanted), the evidence of fire at the circuit breaker box would prove the fire to be electrical rather than incendiary.

In the words of a great philosopher, you may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. At least I hope not. Months ago, I wrote to Google about the possibility of coupling their computing power with their legal scholar database to help identify many of the quarter million people I calculate we have incarcerated today. I'm still waiting for an answer.

Late last week, I wrote to IBM about the possibility of using a Watson like machine to improve the quality of our judicial system. I did not propose removing the human element. I proposed only that we improve the accuracy of the system by increasing the quantity of information and quality of the analysis.

I heard back from IBM the next morning. The person who responded described the concept as "very interesting." Perhaps he was only being polite, but I'll take it. He explained he would pass the idea along to his supervisor who would reply in further detail. I now await that reply. I actually expect to hear something further from IBM, though not necessarily the answer I would like to hear.

My scoring right now is IBM 1, Google 0.

If I cannot interest IBM, I will try Microsoft. If I cannot interest Microsoft, I will try Wolfram Alpha (a mathematically based search engine.) Then I will try something else.

Our wrongful conviction problem is so serious, we need something on the order of a Watson computer coupled with a public acknowledgment of the problem to make even a dent in the number of people already (or soon to be) wrongfully incarcerated.

Stay tuned.

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