Watson’s Potty Mouth

IBM programmers had to clean up the super computer’s language after it learned profanity on the Internet.

Jan 15, 2013
Beth Marie Mole

WIKIMEDIA, RAYSONHO@ OPEN GRID SCHEDULER One of the biggest challenges for developing artificial intelligence is programming computers to understand natural language. But, when IBM programmers fed super computer Watson the Urban Dictionary—an online repository for slang—in an attempt to school it in current lingo, they inadvertently taught it to swear indiscriminately, according to a report in Fortune magazine.

“As humans, we don't realize just how ambiguous our communication is,” Eric Brown, a research scientist with IBM and a mastermind behind Watson, told Fortune. But after Brown and his team fed Watson—of Jeopardy! 2011 fame—the entirety of the Urban Dictionary 2 years ago, Watson included swear words in its answers, even using the word “bullshit” to answer one researcher’s question.

Though Brown and his 35-member team created a profanity filter, Watson was still unable to distinguish between respectful and rude language. The team later had to erase the Urban Dictionary from Watson’s memory, which highlights the challenges ahead for artificial intelligence to speak naturally.