Watson Prepares to Dominate Jeopardy!

Today, February 14, 2011, IBM's Watson computer system is slated to take on the world's best humans in a televised duel of the world famous game “Jeopardy!”.  Should Watson defeat its human competitors, it will herald perhaps the most significant achievement ever in the field of artificial intelligence and computer science.  For IBM the prestige and positive publicity stemming from Watson's victory would be long lasting and the envy of the world.  For the rest of us, Watson's victory would mark yet another of a long series of achievements where computers increasingly exhibit behavior that matches or exceeds human ability.

Perhaps most intriguing of all, however, is that Watson requires the computing power of a mere 90 computer servers (albeit very specialized ones!).  As computing power continues to get ever more powerful and ever more tiny, we all could have access to our own Watson within a decade, maybe much sooner.  Imagine having an assistant as powerful as Watson at your personal disposal - the implications are incredible.  As we all wait during these final hours for the televised match to begin, join me as we take a look at a fantastic trio of short videos that IBM has released to showcase the many facets of this truly historical event.

IBM Watson: Countdown to Jeopardy!

In the video above we are reminded that when the IBM engineers were just beginning to create Watson people thought they were crazy. Many of those Watson engineers themselves questioned quite strongly whether or not they were just wasting their time.  Yet the forces of both human determination and accelerating technology are a formidable combination.

Watson is not only a challenge in information retrieval, it is a challenge in interpreting, and then responding to human language.  Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have often remarked that the ultimate search engine "would understand exactly what you mean and give back exactly what you want."  Such a vision is a far cry from the Google of today, which simply returns a list of websites related to our questions.

IBM's Watson does not have access to the entire internet like Google does, and even if Watson did have such access, it is doubtful that the system IBM has built would be able to scale to an internet sized pool of data without a complete rewrite.  Yet at least for the still quite large corpus of data required to compete in Jeopardy!, it would appear that IBM has mostly delivered on Larry and Sergey's dream.  With the advent of Watson might the bar now be set for the creation of a search engine that can truly listen and respond to our questions verbally?  Whereas before the arrival of Watson an intelligent, verbal search engine seemed decades away, in today's post Watson world such an engine seems much closer on the horizon.

Google already seems well positioned to make such a leap.  Google has until now been a world leader in language translation, whether it be the automatic generation of captions for videos or sleek new applications that bring Star Trek-like language translation to our phones.  Google aside, there are plenty of other talented companies and individuals out there.  Wolfram Alpha certainly comes to mind, as does a Vicarious Inc, whom we recently covered.

IBM Watson: The Face of Watson

The video above shows the great lengths IBM cleared to create a Watson that was pleasing to its human spectators.  It is fascinating to consider how important image is to the overall human perception of Watson.  Should Watson be male or female?  Should Watson speak with an accent?  Should Watson have a human face, with eyes, nose, mouth, and all the other fine qualities of human anatomy?  These questions and more needed to be considered with great care as IBM attempted to create an intelligent computer that humans would respect and perhaps even enjoy.  IBM had to make absolutely sure that Watson was not perceived as annoying, dorky, or worst of all - threatening.  The public relations and marketing component of the Watson project is a very big deal.

IBM Watson: Watson After Jeopardy!

As we see in the video above, IBM sees the creation of Watson as a watershed moment that will lead to the creation of countless Watson progeny in the future.  We can envision a single Watson that is trained to answer a wide range of general questions, but we can also envision Watsons that are trained to become absolute experts on a relatively narrow field of inquiry.  Whereas it may be difficult in the near term to create a single Watson that would know all of the world's information, creating a Watson that is an expert in a single field such as American history or human anatomy and disease would be a much more tractable problem.

The negative crowd will always find a way to shoot down the beauty of a creation such as Watson.  They will say that Watson does not think like a human, that Watson does not truly understand language, or that Watson does not understand humor.  But such thinking, although grounded in truth, entirely misses the point.  Watson does not need to reproduce all facets of human behavior to achieve greatness.  Isn't it enough for Watson to reproduce just one or more of the incredible abilities of humans?  Isn't it enough, at least for today, to be impressed that a computer can defeat any one of us, perhaps even the great Kenneth Jennings and Brad Rutter, in a game of Jeopardy!?  Rest assured, in the decades ahead we will find less and less human abilities that computers cannot reproduce.

The very existence of Watson, whether he succeeds or not in his debut today, is a historical moment that completely changes the landscape of artificial intelligence for the entire world.  Before Watson it was nearly impossible to get people to invest money or their own talents into computer projects that could try to recreate human intelligence in the manner that Watson does.  Now that Watson exists, brilliant minds across the globe will be inspired with a new sense of what is possible.  Watson is a specialized system, created for a very specialized task.  IBM and the world at large won't be able to re-create mini Watsons for our corporations and for our pockets overnight, but as of today the race is on to do just that.  Before Watson existed the challenge was to get people to even try.  Now that challenge is behind us.  People will try, and in great numbers.  People will believe that they can do it, and so they will!

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