Opinion » Cybernaut


It's elementary, Watson



Jeopardy's newest champion didn't have very good stories to tell after the break, but when your entire life is spent inside a metal box there's not much to tell.

I don't know if you managed to catch Watson on Jeopardy last week, but it was of kind amazing. Kind of scary, too, if you believe our destiny involves creating artificial intelligence that eventually overthrows humanity and takes over the world, but amazing nonetheless. IBM created something incredible in Watson, and the ramifications for humanity are huge - well beyond the $1 million that Watson won by defeating Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, Jeopardy's best ever contestants, in three straight nights of quiz competition.

Watson's ability to hear speech and intuitively understand, most of the time, what a question is asking, then come up with an answer (in the form of a question) - thereby showing a unique ability to extract and interpret the right answer from a pile of data - was nothing short of incredible. This was not intuitive programming, like you'd find built into a search engine that uses algorithms to predict your search terms; this was a context-based, interactive demonstration that approaches true artificial intelligence.

Here's a rundown of how Watson works:

Watson is comprised of about 90 IBM server cores with mulitcore processors, capable of running at combined 80 teraflops. The bandwith on each chip is 500 GB, which means Watson had the ability to move a full terabyte of data in about two seconds. It was connected to the studio terminal by a 10 GB dedicated Ethernet network, and had 15 terabytes of memory and 20 terabytes of disk storage.

To answer quizmaster Alex Trebek, Watson sifted through roughly 200 million pages of content to find the correct answers.

Watson wasn't right all the time, and the computer sometimes lacked the ability to pick up on nuanced questions that employed figures of speech, or were two part questions, or were short questions without a lot of data to go by. It also couldn't hear the wrong answers given by other competitors.

Still, as a starting point, Watson shows a lot of promise for its future potential use in a variety of industries, from the mundane handling of call centre requests to interviewing patients at hospitals, to conducting business queries, to testing legal cases.

There's too much hardware to create a home version, but that will change in time and IBM's technology will be streamlined in future editions. In 20 years every home could have a Watson controller. In which case I give humanity about 21 years.


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