News and analysis
February 24, 2011

Could IBM’s Watson Computer Aid the Work of Nonprofits?

IBM's Watson computer system competes against Jeopardy!’s two most successful and celebrated contestants -- Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter -- in a practice match.

Watson, the IBM super computer, last week beat out two of Jeopardy’s most successful contestants on the television game show. Now officials at IBM are beginning to think about how Watson, which can answer questions posed to it in natural language by using algorithms to sort through reams and reams of information, might be able to help alleviate social problems.

This week, roughly 100 government officials, medical researchers, nonprofit leaders, and others gathered at IBM’s research center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., to discuss the possibilities. After the event, Stanley S. Litow, president of the IBM International Foundation, spoke with The Chronicle about his plan for how Watson might be able to improve how governments and nonprofits provide services.

What might the technology that Watson has advanced mean for nonprofits and philanthropy?

It could change the work of nonprofits, philanthropy, municipal government, and the entire third sector in very demonstrable ways. There were people at the event who said this could be an emergency-response system, the equivalent of 311 or 911. Others said this could form the basis of a new education testing and assessment program across the United States.

People were not looking at how we can make one nonprofit more efficient, but they were saying, How could we completely change the delivery of service? Maybe we could find a way to reallocate all the time and effort that people in those organizations spend managing paperwork and computer systems and managing a technology like this and take thousands of people, whether they are teachers or social workers, and put them out in the community to solve people’s problems.

How might this technology work as an emergency-response system, for example?

 People who call 311 or 911 have individuals on the phone who answer their questions. The error rates of what they do and say are pretty high.

In the case of Jeopardy, we fed in millions of pages of data drawn in from all kinds of encyclopedias so that Watson would be smart enough to answer any question. You would do the same thing by feeding in millions and millions of pages worth of data so that when someone called up and had a problem, they’d get the right answer. It would be transformative in poor neighborhoods.

What about in educational testing?

In the United States of America, we have something called the common core standards that have now been developed in more than 40 states. We’re now developing new standards in science, math, history, and English. But if you’re still stuck with the same multiple-choice testing, even if you have higher standards, it won’t raise people up, it will dumb things down so people base their teaching and learning on those multiple-choice tests.

The technology behind Watson blows that up. It says you could have long-answer questions, you could have the ability to grade lengthy paragraphs of information. If the testing system incorporates that, it will allow teachers to test to higher standards and children to learn at higher levels. And it will save lots of money in what is currently a very ineffective and inefficient testing and assessment system.

How far are you from being able to apply the technology to problems like those?

 I don’t know if the next stage will take six months or a year or a year-and-a-half. We’ll identify a couple of problems to work on from those that people who came today, and others who couldn’t come, bring to us. We’ll make the selections and then we’ll be able to tell you how much time each will take and how much money each will take. We can’t solve every problem, but if there are one or two or three really significant ideas, we’ll try to take them to the next level.

If nonprofits have an idea, what should they do?

 This isn’t for any nonprofit that has an idea. We don’t want people to start off by thinking, “I’m an agency and I have this need.” We want ideas that would meet the needs of a variety of people in the community, and not just nonprofits but people in education, municipalities, local governments. But if someone has an idea for changing social-service delivery, for example, I want to hear from them.