Open the pod bay doors, Watson...
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OK... The title of this is not something I thought of. My friend Tim said it, and I thought it was funny.
By now everyone, and I do mean everyone, knows that not only did Watson win against former Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, it thrashed them soundly. In the two day exhibition, Watson's cumulative total was more than the totals of both of its opponents combined. It completely exceeded my own expectations and is a remarkable achievement.
In the aftermath, it's interesting what different people take away from this contest. The first is that many believe Watson had an unfair advantage because it could press the button so well. I think this was shown up in the second game when a highly motivated Ken Jennings started out-buzzing Watson even when it had a 97% assurance of its answer. It is strange, though, about where people place their focus. The idea that a computer could parse language and make sense of millions of different points of information to compete with the human brain is not surprising to them at all. They are fixed on the mechanical switching mechanism. So, maybe we should have a rematch at some point with a different mechanism for buzzing in. I'd watch it!
I overheard some of the researchers talking about the future implications of this project. Essentially this technology could be applied to anything that required searching a large library of information and distilling the relevant results down into a manageable, prioritized set. Medical research is one of the most obvious places where such technology could make a big difference. Imagine being able to compare millions of medical cases to find the hidden patterns. As we move into information in the cloud, technology like this is going to be required to gather and make sense of all the information that is available.
Another point that I overheard was that this does not diminish the amazing power of the human brain at all. One of them quipped that while Watson required enough power to run man computers (even though they were efficient POWER7 machines) the brain of the two champions could run just fine on a bowl of oatmeal. Indeed.
I am currently in the process of making contact with members of the Watson team to bring you some deeper coverage on this project as it relates to the world of open source. It's no secret that Watson runs on Linux, as does Blue Gene, a system which is being used for genetic research, among other things. In my brief conversation with Dr. Kevin Nowka, director of IBM Research in Austin he indicated that there were likely a number of other open-source projects which were tapped as part of the Watson project.
My goal is over the next several months to highlight the projects that made a difference to the Watson endeavor. I'm guessing that anything that was good enough to contribute to an achievement like this is something that you should be looking at for your own applications. The easiest way to keep up with what I'm doing is to follow me here, on Facebook, or Twitter. As anything comes about I'll be posting it there and here.
I also want to share some thoughts about the idea that this means computers are taking us over. It's a fact that we have made ourselves increasingly dependent on computers. If we lost them we would have a lot of remedial work to do to get back to some of our more manual ways of working. We could do it, though. Yet computers have given us tremendous benefit, allowing us to do more with more information than ever before. I look at the sorts of things that I casually do with media, or even information research, which used to require vast resources and a good amount of human effort, which I can do almost automatically.
At the viewing party for the Jeopardy Finale, one of the University of Texas researchers, who's name I did not catch (I apologize), said that he thought that the phrase "Artificial Intelligence" was problematic because it created visions of a sort of alien life evolving -- which is pretty much the way that we like to portray that in books and films. He said that he preferred the term "Intelligence Augmented" (IA), because it is a tool to enhance our own intelligence and abilities.
A lot of people seem to have a fear of the machines taking us over. Even Ken Jennings had a go when he wrote on his Final Jeopardy answer "(I for one welcome our new computer overlords.)" This showed great sportsmanship and humor under what must have been a humbling experience. But there are a lot of people that seem fear being ruled by the computers of the future. I think that fear is misplaced. The computers are and I think always will be tools. They might be misused by people in power, and that's why openness is so important in technology.
If you happened to miss this historic event, I found a replay of game number 1 of 2 from YouTube which I am attaching.