Defeating Death (And Taxes)

By Seán Finan

“It is one of the most powerful tools our species has created. It helps doctors fight disease. It can predict global weather patterns. It improves education for children everywhere. And now, we unleash it…on your taxes.”

Super Bowl 2017 was an absolute cracker. My passport is not American and my accent is not Bostonian, but somewhere amidst the drama and the crowd and the cheesy nachos, I was drawn in and hooked. I roared and gasped and choked on cheap beer all the way to that nail-biting finish. Go Pats.

But, as it was my very first Super Bowl, I was told to keep an eye on the ads. Sure enough, they were hilarious, inspiring, maddening and perplexing by turn. One of them, however, hit me harder than Keanu Neal.

This ad, from H&R Block, announced that they will be using IBM’s Watson to deliver their services. Watson is, perhaps, the most impressive artificial intelligence that our species has yet produced. H&R Block is a consumer tax services provider.

What is Watson?

Watson quietly became the first prophet of our machine overlords in 2011 when it beat two humans at Jeopardy! Not just any two humans either; the pair were the Kasparov and Kramnik of the Jeopardy! world. Computers being smarter and faster than humans is nothing new, but unlike maths or chess, Jeopardy! is not won by following simple, linear rules. It’s a test of pattern recognition and natural language ability. For example, one task was to find a rhyming phrase that corresponded to “a long tiresome speech delivered by a frothy pie topping”. The humans on the show didn’t get it. Watson, which had taught itself English by reading Wikipedia, buzzed in with the correct answer: “A meringue harangue.”

Like Deep Blue and chess, Watson was developed specifically to play Jeopardy! However, what it represents is another step towards the utopian vision of so many futurists, AI theorists and computer developers: a world where man and machine work in tandem. Man is good at intuition, creative leaps and adapting to completely unpredicted situations. Machine is better at memory, logic and processing vast quantities of information. Many see a world where these unique strengths are used synergistically to accelerate progress and discovery beyond what either are capable of on their own. Watson’s unique ability is in natural language. It “reads” the sum of human writing, as written by and for humans. Then, it responds to questions posed by humans in natural language.

What has Watson been doing?

Watson was quickly put to good use. In 2013, IBM announced a partnership with the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Watson is used there as a decision support system for clinicians. It provides probabilistic diagnoses and lists potential treatment options. That Watson has the potential to revolutionize medicine seems beyond doubt. Early goals are to help reduce the number of misdiagnoses that are due to cognitive bias. One report talks about;

“anchoring bias: human beings’ tendency to rely too heavily on a single piece of information. This happens all the time… A physician hears about two or three symptoms, seizes on a diagnosis consistent with those, and subconsciously discounts evidence that points to something else… Tools like Watson are less prone to those failings.”

Other hospitals, like Wellpoint and the Cleaveland Clinic and medical schools, like Columbia and Maryland, embraced the technology. Another report notes that “Watson’s successful diagnosis rate for lung cancer is 90 percent, compared to 50 percent for human doctors.”

Then, IBM launched the Watson Group, with three new, cloud delivered services.

“The first, Watson Discovery Advisor, is designed to accelerate and strengthen research and development projects in industries such as pharmaceutical, publishing and biotechnology. The second, Watson Analytics, delivers visualized Big Data insights, based on questions posed in natural language by any business user. The third offering, IBM Watson Explorer, helps users across an enterprise uncover and share data-driven insights more easily, while empowering organizations launch Big Data initiatives faster”

In 2016, Watson joined with Weather Underground to better predict weather patterns. The hope is to reduce the $500 billion lost to weather related incidents every year and to improve irrigation models across the developing world.

More recently, IBM has partnered with educational institutions to help create more personalized approaches to teaching and learning. They hope to craft a tailored approach to each student that will use individual interests, learning styles and potentials to bring students further, faster.

What’s the Problem with the Ad?

All this to help explain why I found this particular advertisement more surreal than the game it interrupted. Why I felt simultaneous desires to laugh and cry even before that final touchdown. I’ve transcribed the voice-over from the ad below.

“It is one of the most powerful tools our species has created. It helps doctors fight disease. It can predict global weather patterns. It improves education for children everywhere. And now, we unleash it…on your taxes.

“Hello, my name is Watson.

“Yep, IBM Watson in the hands of H&R Block tax professionals.

Creating a future where every last deduction and credit is found.”

I hope I’m not the only one who thinks Douglas Adams would have gotten a kick out of this.

I’m not entirely sure why using Watson for taxes makes me feel uneasy. It isn’t an intrinsically bad thing to do. Neither is it entirely without benefits; the ad goes on to talk about how Watson is helping more money back to families. But I can’t shake the feeling that it could be doing something better.

A lot of thought, writing and debate goes on around the question of using new and emerging technologies in moral and responsible ways. Usually, the discussion is focused on how to avoid doing harm: non-malfeasance, if you will. Less is said about beneficence. Few people actively set out to do harm with new technologies. But do inventors and owners of world-changing technologies have a moral responsibility to use those technologies for good? As a wise man once said, “with great power comes great responsibility”.

Continuing on the superhero theme: using Watson to file your tax returns seems a little like using Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, to crack walnuts or eat lobster. Watson’s health, weather and education initiatives are glimpse of that machine utopia. But are we misdirecting that power?

I’m reminded of the “10/90 Gap”: the fact that only 10% of the world’s total health related R&D budget is devoted to problems that represent 90% of the global disease burden. I don’t know if we have a moral responsibility to actively do good. If we do, I don’t know if we have a responsibility to focus on any particular aspect of the good. And I don’t know if Watson has even a tenth of the potential that I hope it does. But, as bad as taxes are, I do know that humanity is facing bigger problems. And I’d prefer to see our efforts go there first.


Seán Finan was a Student Fellow during the 2016-2017 academic year while he was a student in the LLM program at Harvard Law School. He holds a LLB from Trinity College, Dublin, where he served as a Senior Editor of the Trinity College Law Review. His research interests include governance and the ethical implications of emerging biotechnologies. For his Fellowship project, he investigated the use of morality tests on patent applications as a means of indirect regulation of research.

One thought to “Defeating Death (And Taxes)”

  1. Ask Watson. It can provide answers to the most difficult questions quick. Scary how far AI has come already.

    Let’s hope it will be used for good cause only, like providing answers for lung cancer treatments.

    Hopefully it won’t get used for something like taxes.

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