Engineering, entertainment, IBM’s Watson, and product placement

A new partnership between the Entertainment Industries Council (EIC) and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) was announced last week. From the Feb. 25, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

In honor of National Engineers Week, the Entertainment Industries Council, Inc. (EIC) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have announced a new partnership to promote careers in science, engineering and technology. The partnership serves to enhance EIC’s ongoing Ready on the S.E.T. and … Action! program in collaboration with The Boeing Company, by providing additional expertise in science and technology to the entertainment industry creative community under the auspices of EIC’s First Draft brand.

I’m not familiar with the EIC or its ‘Ready on the S.E.T. and … Action!’ program but here’s a video featuring Pauley Perrette (from the US tv show NCIS) in one of the program’s public service announcements designed to encourage girls to enter the field of engineering,

This new program the ‘First Draft’ is a little different,

In addition to offering experts to writers, producers, directors, performers and creative executives on any and all areas of science, engineering and technology on-demand, the First Draft effort with NSF’s Science Scene program in the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs will also provide publications with depiction suggestions to creators, as well as conducting topic briefings. The first such briefing will take place in July, at the start of the television [tv] writing season. The half-day event, described as a sort-of “writer’s boot camp,” will offer up scientists and engineers in a variety of cutting-edge fields that may be useful to story development and technical guidance. Topics are expected to include such areas as nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence, bioengineering (including artificial limbs and implants), forensics (including DNA analysis and miniaturized lab techniques), as well as artificial life and genetic engineering-and exciting tie-ins to aerospace engineering, among others.

If I read this correctly, they are running a workshop prior to any writing or production work being done. In other words, they’re getting to the writers and producers before the tv episodes are written or conceptualized. That means the usual order of writers and producers getting an idea for a story, finding an expert either to vet it from a technical/scientific perspective, and going into production is reversed. Now, the story idea will spring from the science and the technology. In a sense, you could say the ‘product placement’ (science and technology) drives the story or, alternatively, you could say it’s a neat piece of social engineering.

I’ve been thinking about social engineering especially on the heels of the ‘Watson’ computer triumph on Jeopardy, the tv quiz program, after three days (Feb. 14 – 16, 2011) of competing against humans (mentioned in my Feb. 14, 2011 posting). Shortly (Feb. 24, 2011) after Watson won, IBM (Watson’s creator) announced a collaboration with the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine on a project that could bring Watson into the examining room with you.¬† From the article by Frank D. Roylance on physorg.com,

They have begun work on merging the speech recognition and question-answering skills of Watson – the computer that beat two humans on “Jeopardy!” last week – with the vast stores of clinical knowledge and analytical skills in the medical profession.

If it all works out, the end product could be a “Dr. Watson” in hospitals and physicians’ offices

“In the future, I see the software sitting with the physician as he is interviewing the patient, and processing information in real time, and correlating that with the patient’s medical record and other records,” said Dr. Eliot Siegel, director of the Maryland Imaging Research Technologies Lab at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Watson, he said, “has incredible potential to revolutionize how we interact with medical records; to be a really valuable assistant to me; to read all the literature pertinent to my practice … to always be at my side and help suggest problems, things in the medical records I need to know about; to suggest diagnoses and treatment options I may not have considered,” he said.

I found the timing interesting. First Watson demonstrates that it can think (it beat humans on a quiz that requires some semantic sophistication)¬† in a fairly non-threatening way (the mistakes the computer made were odd, not like humans at all and therefore funny). Then within one week or so, an announcement is made about using Watson (some day) in the doctor’s office.

IBM made much of the fact that the computer was named after the company founder, Paul Watson, and not Sherlock Holmes’s Dr. Watson. Still, I’m sure if the company founder’s name had been Zloklikovits or another¬† name considered challenging for one reason or another, they wouldn’t have used the company founder’s name.

I’m pointing out that there’s a great deal of planning and money on the line and it’s a good idea to be critical (i.e. not accept unthinkingly) of our entertainment from time to time.

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