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I’ll admit it: The motivation level to explain how IBM Watson shares a connection with the characters from Avengers: Age of Ultron is coming from the high I just experienced watching this larger-than-life spectacle on the big screen.

If you saw the movie, you may know where I’m going with this discussion. If not, let me give you a quick overview.

Don’t worry, plot spoilers aren’t part of this discussion.

Ultron, the main villain/antagonist, is a powerful robot configured through the programming of whiz engineer Tony Stark (Iron Man). Actually, calling him a mere robot is probably an insult – and he’d surely crush me if he heard me say that.

Ultron has human characteristics. He can respond, converse, and formulate thoughts. Like IBM Watson, he learns and operates on a cognitive level. And each time he learns something new, he gets better and better at adapting to human behavior.


Image courtesy of Marvel

Unlike IBM Watson, Ultron is not looking to help humanity.

In fact, he's looking to destroy it. Big surprise, right?

Ultron’s counterpart in the film is J.A.R.V.I.S – Stark’s right-hand computer, so to speak. Like Ultron, J.A.R.V.I.S is designed with a strong AI backbone. He can speak, interact, and function as a human without the physical form, of course.

The role of J.A.R.V.I.S is centrally defined. He is a software program that scours large volume sets of data to find instant answers that mere mortals like Stark can’t find on their own. His intentions are to help. When he communicates his findings, he uses different graphical representations, sometimes going into the depths of holographic displays.

Minus the speaking and holographic capabilities, Watson and J.A.R.V.I.S are fulfilling many of the same tasks. When it comes to serving the greater good for the human population, Watson and J.A.R.V.I.S have a lot more in common than Watson and Ultron.  

Is J.A.R.V.I.S a preview of the future version of IBM Watson?

It’s hard to say. Both of these machines are super heat-seeking search engines that speak the natural language. But J.A.R.V.I.S is responsive and can adapt immediately to human sensibilities. Yes, it leans heavily on existing data to make its recommendations. But it also leans heavily on the live spontaneity of humans to arrive at somewhat unconventional conclusions. And that’s where Watson isn’t quite on the level of J.A.R.V.I.S or Ultron.

In an interview with Bloomberg Business, Klaus-Peter Adlassnig (editor-in-chief of "Artificial Intelligence in Medicine") explained the gap Watson still has to close. In a clinical setting, Watson would be a “literal-minded” doctor that would arrive at its diagnosis by the book.

There are some, like Douglas Hofstradter, who have even questioned IBM Watson as not possessing real artificial intelligence. In a response to Hofstradter, Slate produced a great piece entitled, “Why Watson is Real Artificial Intelligence,” that is worth reading.

These discussions continue to spark the embers of how we interact with AI today, while Age of Ultron certainly makes you think about the possibilities of advanced AI going forward.

For instance, if IBM Watson combined forces with Siri, all of a sudden you’d have the pieces in place for a latter day HAL (that’s another comparison for another day).

One thing is for sure, as great as the promise of AI can be, it can still turn into a sociopathic killer when you least expect it.

Tony Stark: I tried to create a suit of armor around the world... but I created something terrible.

Bruce Banner: Artificial intelligence...

For now, the AI that IBM Watson displays works just fine.

To learn more about IBM Watson, click here. 

Images courtesy of Marvel.




Written by IBM BP Network