Ten years ago many of us thought it was done. It was February 16, 2011 and for three days on American TV a computer named Watson had crashed two champions in a quiz game: Jeopardy! Like the parcels of Raiuno ol ‘Heredity. The challenger was designed by IBM, one of the symbolic names of the computer revolution; a few years earlier another IBM product, Deep Blue, had beaten the world chess champion in a match that went down in history; but Jeopardy! it required more complex and subtle reasoning than analyzing the movements of the pieces in sixty-four boxes. It required artificial intelligence. And Watson showed he had it.
The New York Times broke the news and warned that it was not a game, it was a serious thing to deal with; the Guardian spoke of an epic moment. We journalists get excited about cases like this. IBM obviously hadn’t developed Watson to sign him up for TV quizzes, but to have a tool with which to develop products in the various sectors in which artificial intelligence was thought to have had an open field. Above all, health. Billion market, it is estimated. Watson will help doctors make better diagnoses, someone wrote; it will be instrumental in defeating cancer and other deadly diseases, was the idea. It all seemed easy, but it didn’t turn out that way. The fact is that artificial intelligence feeds on data: the more data it has, the more effective its responses are, but if data is scarce it becomes an “artificial stupid”. And in the world of health, having all the data possible has turned out to be more complicated than expected.
Moral: after ten years, the turnover of Watson Salute is just 1 billion dollars which is not even enough to cover the costs: it is at a loss. And it’s for sale, says the Wall Street Journal. Yet in the year of the pandemic, an artificial intelligence capable of protecting us from the virus would have been useful: and instead Watson put him to do the call center to answer questions from citizens in about twenty countries. Too little for those we hoped it had all the answers to our fears. We will have to find them by ourselves.