An IBM Scientist Taught His Supercomputer To Swear Like A Sailor

Ears plugged

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A funny thing happened on the way to creating an IBM supercomputer capable of understanding human language: A research scientist accidentally filled its vocabulary with foul language.And the computer, known as Watson, didn’t know the difference between salty phrases and polite ones. It started peppering its conversations with words like “bullshit.”

So explains Eric Brown, the IBM scientist responsible for Watson’s potty mouth, in an interview with Fortune’s Michal Lev-Ram.

The problem Brown was trying to solve was an age-old one. He wanted to create a computer that would pass the Turing test, computer scientist Alan Turing’s famous challenge to have a computer give answers to questions that are indistinguishable from a human being’s answers. So far, no computer has ever passed the test, though some attempts have led to funny results.

So Brown fed Watson the contents of a site called Urban Dictionary, thinking that would be a good way to teach it to understand idioms and slang like “OMG.”  He didn’t realise that Urban Dictionary is filled with profanity and sexual innuendo.


Or as Watson would say, [email protected]#$.”

Brown eventually created a filter that cleaned up Watson’s potty mouth and the supercomputer could safely appear on national television. In 2011, Watson did so, winning on the game show “Jeopardy” against human competitors by a landslide.

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