Watson wins Jeopardy! – Artificial Inteligence of the 21st century?

After the 1997 success of Deep Blue which defeated chess world champion Gary Kasparoff, another IBM supercomputer proved its ability to beat a human being between 12th and 14th September 2011, this time the best Jeopardy players in the world. Let me introduce Watson, the artificial intelligence computer system, named after IBM’s first president, Thomas J. Watson.

However, the beginnings were not easy at all:

How does it work?

Watson is capable of answering questions posed in natural language. In order to prepare it for the competition, researchers scanned around 200 million pages of content, i.e. the equivalent of about one million books, into Watson’s system, including reference texts, movie scripts and entire encyclopaedias, such as Britannica, World Book and Wikipedia. The computer was able to ‘read’ all of the 500 gigabytes within no more than three seconds and solved each competition question without connection to the Internet.  Moreover, the content was stored in Watson’s RAM during the game because data stored on a regular hard drive would be too slow to access.

Nevertheless, the September competition was not Watson’s first one. In the middle of February 2011 in a test competition he won the first prize of $1 million, while Jeopardy stars Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter received $300,000 and $200,000, respectively. What is worth noticing, during the competitions was that Watson was much faster than its human rivals unless there were short clues contained only a few words.

As a result we can look at this competition as the next evolution in the quest to design computers that can beat humans at their own game. However, it is a human brain which designed the underlying software and structure. Dr. Bernard S. Meyerson, IBM’s vice president for innovation stressed it is not something that the machine invented, the machine is a consequence of human ability to create a new impressive invention.

Therefore, we should not look at Watson as our competition. Indeed its ability to understand the meaning and context of human language and immediate process of information to find accurate answers to complex questions, implies enormous potential help to accomplish tasks in business and our personal lives. This technology can be applied for example in the area of healthcare for accurate diagnoses of patients, online self-service help desks providing tourists and citizens with specific information regarding cities, prompt customer support via phone and in other relevant areas.

Looking closer at the numbers:

  • Watson’s hardware probably cost about $3 million and with 80 TeraFLOPs would be placed 94th on the Top 500 Supercomputers list, and 49th in the Top 50 Supercomputers list
  • IBM owns far more technology patents than any other American technology firm
  • Watson Research Headquarters has been in existence since 50 years
  • IBM celebrates its 100th anniversary this year
Source: IBM, wired.com and Wikipedia
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