The cool thing about Watson, IBM's Jeopardy-crushing computer, is not that it is great at Jeopardy or a sign of the robacolypse. This machine is real world useful, and can give you something Google can't: One right answer. Video inside.
A little background: Watson is a four-years-in-the-making IBM supercomputer that is able to play Jeopardy! like a human. It has gone through a half decade of development to get it from answering questions in about 2 hours, and poorly at that, to being able to answer them in 3 seconds. Not only that, but the machine knows when it doesn't know. If a question is asked, Watson will only answer if it's confidence is over a certain threshold. What you can see of Watson behind the podium is a display with a blue spinning orb, with colored lights flying around it indicating green for high confidence, yellow for middle, and red for low. It's quite elegant and beautiful, and smartly doesn't cross the threshold of being a terrifying humanoid robot.
Today, while Watson played Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the two undisputed grandmasters of the game, it struck me as odd that this machine was built at all. A lot of money, somewhere in the millions of dollars (IBM was mum about this statistic), was poured into making a machine that can play a TV quiz show? It turns out, as you'll see in the following, that this show was perfect for the unveiling of, for lack of a better term, a new kind of search engine. Here's John Kelly, director of IBM research setting it up. (apologies for my shaky camera hands)
Google and other search engines are indeed handy, fast, and knowledgeable on everything you'd ever need to know. The problem that we've all no doubt run into a million times is how to phrase a search to get the desired result. There is no humanity to the searches we do on Google. We use phrases with no prepositions, turns of phrase, or wordplay, because it confuses the algorithm to add anything extraneous. Knowing how to correctly search Google has become a language in and of itself, because it's not how humans naturally inquire.
Humanity, or the English speaking part of it at least, is where Watson and Jeopardy excel. The show rewards a keen focus on wordplay, such that even if you don't know the answer off the top of your head, you might be able to guess based on the clues in the question. It felt like watching magic, and my jaw dropped seeing Watson answer. It is able to parse English idioms and turns of phrase, that if searched on Google provide a sea of pages with varying degrees of accuracy. Watson is AskJeeves.com if it ever had actually worked. It's a better, easier to use Wolfram Alpha. Below you'll find the gameplay footage. Eerie, and incredible, I can't wait for these episodes to premiere in February.
The IBMers mentioned medicine as a possible application for Watson. He could conceivably diagnose a disease in a couple of seconds. The possibilities for him seem endless though, whatever the field. And there I've gone and done it, calling Watson by a gendered pronoun. Maybe the future will be more Blade Runner and less Terminator, but we have nothing to fear, unless you get really embarrassed losing at trivia.
-Powered by 10 racks of IBM POWER 750 servers running Linux, using 15 terabytes of RAM, 2,880 processor cores and is capable of operating at 80 teraflops
Loads of thanks to IBM for letting us come out there, and to Alex Trebek for being himself.