Tag Archives: empathy

Did Watson Have an Empathy Algorithm?

17 Feb

I’ve read the different explanations from IBM about why Watson acted so quirkily at the end of the first game when it held a commanding lead–$36,681 compared to Brad Rutter’s $5,400 and Ken Jennings $2,400. In the final Jeopardy round’s category “U.S. Cities” the computer answered “Toronto” when the correct response was “Chicago.”

IBM has been quick to offer reasons about its most famous computer’s personality. And they make some sense in an obfuscation as techie jargon kind of way.

What I think happened is much simpler: an IBM programmer introduced an empathy algorithm into the software. That is, if Watson knew it was pounding its opponents into the intellectual trivia dust, it would back off; it would refrain from humiliating its opponents. Think of it as a variant of Isaac Asimov’s famous first rule of robots: Do not harm humans. What could be more harmful to smart people than to make them look stupid in public?

Three things make my empathy algorithm theory very possible. First, Watson blew the very basic Final Jeopardy category “U.S. Cities.” IBM lamely says the computer’s answer, Toronto, makes some sense in that there are U.S. cities with the same name. Maybe, but do any of the Torontos in Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota, and Texas have an airport, let alone two of them? Any named for World War II history? Didn’t think so.

Second, the $947 bet. If, despite the empathy algorithm, in the random chance that Watson was going to get the Final Jeopardy response correct, it could not chance adding brutishly to its insurmountable lead. So, it bet small. Logic alone would dictate a bet of around $15,000 to assure a two-game match victory. But Watson did the gentlemanly thing instead and bet politely.

Finally, an item in the Fast Company story is intriguing. Apparently some programmer took it into his or her head to let Watson make “non-zero” bets for things like Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy. He or she thought those arbitrary bets would spice up the show. As, indeed, they did.

With that kind of freedom granted to Watson’s developers, I’m willing to surmise that one programmer thought it was wise to make Watson a good chap as well as a great player and so introduced an empathy algorithm.


Callous Toward the Homeless

4 Jan

Nearly every day I see people begging here in the Willamette Valley. They stand on street corners and at freeway exits holding barely readable tattered cardboard signs. They wander up and down the streets of towns large and small asking for spare change. They line up outside shelters for food and a bed for a night.

Like most people most of the time, I don’t pay them too much attention. I’ve become callously indifferent toward the homeless.

When I lived in San Francisco in the 1990s and walked from the Polk Gulch neighborhood to my office downtown, I’d put a big handful of quarters in my pocket and hand out one or two in response to the requests for spare change. By the time I got to work a half hour later, my pocket would be empty. I doubt that I saved anyone on those urban treks, but I doubt I did any harm either.

In 2007 it was estimated that more than 650,000 people in the United States were chronically homeless. The government’s Housing and Urban Development (HUD) said that in 2009 1.5 million individuals spent at least one night without a home to sleep in. According to another survey, more than 19% of the homeless are military veterans. That same report shows that 55% of homeless people are afflicted with disabilities, yet barely 25% have some kind of health insurance. And more than half of those on the streets have no source of income, hence the begging.

It’s only going to get worse. As jobs become scarce in this country and politicians chip away at social services, Social Security, and Medicare, expect homelessness to grow. In fact, given the arrival of Baby Boomers into senior citizen status, it’s estimated that the number of  homeless among the elderly will expand 33% in the coming decade.

Guilt-ridden individuals will not solve homelessness one handout at a time. The solution, if there is one, must come from a large-scale government effort. But our political leaders have little concern about the homeless because they are not as powerful a constituency as, say, millionaires who demand tax breaks. Sadly, there’s little hope for the homeless.

On occasion, especially on a cold day like today, I’ll roll down the window of my heated car and hand over a dollar or two to a beggar who claims to be homeless. Although I know it’s unlikely that my meagre contribution can turn their lives around, I still do it. And, yes, I realize I can get scammed by those who are not in such dire straits. But I don’t worry about the loss of a couple bucks to a petty crook. Mostly, I worry about the loss of my sense of empathy toward my fellow human beings.