Meet Watson, our computer overlord

By James Crowell
February 23, 2011

Artificial intelligence recently became less science fiction and more science fact as IBM’s Watson soundly beat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter after a three-day tournament on the popular quiz show “Jeopardy!

Named for IBM’s first president Thomas J. Watson, the supercomputer takes up an entire server room at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.  Watson has no internet connection and must rely on its 15 trillion bytes of memory to compute the natural language questions that it is asked.  Watson also has access to 200 million pages of structured and unstructured content that takes up four terabytes of disk storage.

While watching Watson compete against the two humans, I began to think that we may not actually be that far off from having our personal computers possess an artificial intelligence, or at least having access over the internet to a Watson-like intelligence.

This is Watson. The symbol used to represent the computer program that wiped out the compitition on “Jeopardy!” --MCT

I have heard people claim that, “Of course it’s going to win: it’s a computer!” and while, yes, it is an extremely powerful supercomputer that has been meticulously programmed by countless researchers at IBM, Watson still has had to be taught and trained how to interpret and filter information presented to it.  Just because it is a computer does not mean that it will always get the question right: many times throughout the practice matches during last year and the Jeopardy! IBM Challenge matches Watson guessed wrong.

Another fact that many people misconstrued is that human language is infinitely complex.  Words can have a variety of meanings.  For example, the word ‘bat’ can refer to a baseball bat, but the same word can refer to the flying mammal.  For a supercomputer such as Watson, the intricacies of any human language can be difficult to comprehend.

The researchers at IBM, lead by principal investigator David Ferrucc, have programmed Watson to better understand the myriad of meanings that words can have.  This was evident in watching the “Jeopardy!” matches, as Watson did not make many major mistakes.

To me, the most interesting and fascinating aspect of Watson is not it was not designed only for a showcase on a quiz show.  No, no.  From its outset, IBM’s DeepQA project built Watson with the primary purpose being to allow people to interact with a synthetic intelligence and for computers to understand questions that humans ask and to generate information that someone can easily understand.

Watson and his two competitors, former champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, deep in the game. --MCT

To that end, IBM (partnering with other companies) wants to develop some sort of commercial product during the next two years that will use Watson’s capabilities to aid the diagnosis and treatment of patients.  Medicine seems like a clear and powerful field that a system such as Watson could be used for to diagnose and assist a doctor.  Sifting through literally millions of medical journals and texts in addition to the records of specific pacients that need attending to.

Although Watson’s bedside manner may leave something to be desired, it could digest the compendium of all human medical knowledge with ease, cross reference with a patients’ personal medical history and return with a course of action or a diagnosis within moments.  A computer would never make the final decision, but in conjunction with a physician, an artificial intelligence could play a critical role in improving the lives of millions, if not billions of lives worldwide.

Within the next 10 years and beyond, I strongly believe that artificial intelligence technologies, like the ones that allowed Watson to win Jeopardy!, will become more accessible to the general population and that by the time I am eight years out of college, we will have laptops and cell phones that can easily access a database like Watson.We will be able ask it anything we want and it will return it using a natural-sounding human voice.

We have come so far in the past 10 years, let alone the past two decades, in terms of computing power, so it stands to reason that humanity will be able to develop extremely powerful artificial intelligences soon that will be able to fit into your pocket or laptop bag.  And I know once they go on sale, I’ll be first in line to buy one.

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James Crowell

Senior com major at Cabrini College. Technical Director for LOQation. On-Air personality on WYBF-FM. Past News editor for The Loquitur, 2011-12. Passion for videography, tech news & quantum mechanics. Follow me @JamesCrowellJr

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