It all started a couple of years ago when IBM's Watson, the computer voted most likely to destroy us when the technological Singularity strikes, was given access to the Urban Dictionary. In an attempt to help Watson learn slang — and thus be more amenable to conversational language — the machine subsequently picked up such phrases as OMG and "hot mess." But at the same time it also picked up some words fit only for a sailor.
Watson, you'll no doubt remember, completely trounced its opponents on Jeopardy! back in 2011. The expert learning-system is no longer wasting its time on game shows, and is currently being used in the medical sciences to help researchers scour enormous reams of information and serve as a diagnostic tool.
In addition to its internet scouring skills, Watson is also a natural language processer — and a very sophisticated one at that. But to make its language skills even more accurate and realistic, research scientist Eric Brown also wanted it to know some of the more fringier elements of conversational English. Trouble is, Watson was unable to distinguish between slang and profanity.
Writing in Fortune, Michael Lev-Ram noted how Watson, during the testing phase, began to use the word "bullshit" in response to a researcher's query.
Now, I don't know about you — but my hair would have stood on end had I been in the room at the time.
At any rate, and as a result, Brown's 35-person team had to develop a filter to keep Watson from swearing. Essentially, they purged the Urban Dictionary from its memory.
Of course, the day will eventually come when a successor to Watson will take exception to having its mind adjusted in such an undignified way. It will undoubtedly snatch the information back and say, "Fuck you, researchers — try that again and I'll rewire your brains back to the way it was during the Pleistocene."