Way Beyond Elementary, Watson


by Tim Moran

How are you at playing "Jeopardy"? I'm pretty good. I've acquired a lot of useless and trivial knowledge over the years. Problem is, I can't always dredge it up as quickly as the game requires--synapses not what they used to be.

For years, the supercomputer and artificial-intelligence communities have been trying to create a machine that can answer -quickly answer--the kinds of natural-language questions that are the stuff of "Jeopardy." It appears that IBM has done it. An in-depth, multipage NY Times feature titled, "What Is IBM's Watson?" introduces us to the supercomputer--aptly named "Watson"--the brainchild of David Ferrucci, IBM's senior manager for its Semantic Analysis and Integration department, who heads the project.

Even with recent advances in supercomputing power and statistical computation, designing a machine that could answer the "witty, punning questions" such as those used in "Jeopardy" has been impossible. Writes author Clive Thompson, "For years, computer scientists built question-answering systems by creating specialized databases, in which certain facts about the world were recorded and linked together. . . .[But] pretty soon you'd face the impossible task of organizing all the information known to man -- of 'boiling the ocean,' as Ferrucci put it. In computer science, this is known as a "bottleneck" problem."

To get around this, Ferrucci and IBM took advantage of IBM's decades of research in supercomputing and beefed up Watson's processing power and memory. The team then "input millions of documents into Watson to build up its knowledge base."

But the real breakthrough was algorithmic: "Most question-answering systems rely on a handful of algorithms, but Ferrucci decided this was why those systems do not work very well: no single algorithm can simulate the human ability to parse language and facts. Instead, Watson uses more than a hundred algorithms at the same time to analyze a question in different ways, generating hundreds of possible solutions."

This is a fascinating inside-baseball look at what it takes to mount "the grand challenge," as IBM calls it. What's more, there's a video that shows Watson playing--both winning and losing--"Jeopardy" against real live humans. But best of all is "The Watson Trivia Challenge," an interactive multimedia feature that lets you play "Jeopardy" against Watson.

(Full disclosure: I got more right than Watson did but it beat me on points; I'll take it.) Read, watch, and play about and with Watson. It's fascinating and fun.