The day Watson the super computer learned to swear

Could this actually be a breakthrough?

IBM has been trying to get a super computer (Watson) to pass the Turing test - a test that works out how intelligent - or human like - a machine is.

But when they tried to teach Watson some phrases from Urban Dictionary, they accidentally taught him how to swear. Then they couldn't get him to stop. Here's an extract from an interview with Ed Brown, that appeared in Fortune magazine.

But Watson couldn't distinguish between polite language and profanity -- which the Urban Dictionary is full of. Watson picked up some bad habits from reading Wikipedia as well. In tests it even used the word "bullshit" in an answer to a researcher's query.

Ultimately, Brown's 35-person team developed a filter to keep Watson from swearing and scraped the Urban Dictionary from its memory. But the trial proves just how thorny it will be to get artificial intelligence to communicate naturally. Brown is now training Watson as a diagnostic tool for hospitals. No knowledge of OMG required.

It sounds like they made a breakthrough. The Turing test supposedly tests artificial intelligence - but this is a misnomer, as it actually measures for all human behaviours, not  just "intelligent" ones. Points are given for idiosyncratic behaviour: susceptibility to insults, temptation to lie, and even typing errors - (the first Loebner winner's victory was due partly to its ability to "imitate human typing errors").

Picking up swearing a little too easily? Responding to a supposedly straight question with "bullshit"? Sounds like Watson's becoming more human by the minute.

A computer that swears back. Photograph: Getty Images
Getty Images.
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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.