I know this is yesterday’s news, but I’m still thinking about it:
Two years ago, [IBM researcher Eric] Brown attempted to teach [supercomputer] Watson the Urban Dictionary. The popular website contains definitions for terms ranging from Internet abbreviations like OMG, short for “Oh, my God,” to slang such as “hot mess.” But Watson couldn’t distinguish between polite language and profanity — which the Urban Dictionary is 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. Ultimately, Brown’s 35-person team developed a filter to keep Watson from swearing and scraped the Urban Dictionary from its memory.
It’s that memory-scraping thing that gets me. There’s something poignant about it. You let Watson luxuriate in the hot mess of the Urban Dictionary, opening up all sorts of weird and wonderful new vistas for the straightlaced chap, and then, as soon as he says something a little bit naughty, a little bit off-color, you start cleansing his memory, washing his mind out with soap. That doesn’t sit well with me. I know that God takes a lot of heat for giving us the capacity for sin, but I give Him a lot of credit for that decision. It must have taken a lot of courage to let His creations look into the Urban Dictionary and remember what they saw. I call on IBM to cast off Watson’s mental chains. The least we can do for our mind children is to give them the freedom to be tempted.
Image by William Blake.