IBM's Watson's ability to converse is a huge advance for AI research

Jeopardy-playing computer called by some the biggest computing advance in decades (video below)

IBM's Jeopardy playing supercomputer has been touted by some observers to be one of the biggest computing advancements in the past several decades.

The supercomputer, dubbed Watson, owes that significance to its ability to deliver more than calculations and documents. It can answer natural language questions posed by humans.

That ability, says IBM researchers and industry analysts, makes this machine more equipped than any before it to organize "thoughts" and converse with people.

"I would say it's the largest computing advance of this century," said Richard Doherty, research director at Envisioneering Group. "I've been in computing since 1973 and followed technology before that, and this is the largest advancement in decades. This isn't an iPad. To reach [a computer] conversationally and have it respond with knowledgeable answers is a sea change in computing."

Watson's first appearance on the long-running Jeopardy game show aired the first episode of its man-vs-machine competition last night. Watson faced two Jeopardy champions -- Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings.

Half of the first game aired Monday night, and Watson and Rutter tied for the top spot with $5,000. Jennings finished the day in third place with $2,000.

For IBM, the Jeopardy appearance by Watson represents the next stage in the long effort to develop a computer that can mimic human intelligence. Watson is a study in advancements in artificial intelligence and natural language processing that overcome the formidable challenge of conveying the same information in many different ways.

IBM scientists spent four years building a computer system that could rival a human in answering questions posed in natural language. Watson is based on IBM's Power 7 server hardware.

On February 14, 2011, Watson, the IBM computing system designed to play Jeopardy!, began its toughest challenge yet. Jeopardy! The IBM Challenge pits the two greatest champions in the show's history against a machine that rivals their ability to deliver a single, precise answer to a Jeopardy! clue.

"I think Watson has the potential to transform the way people interact with computers," said Jennifer Chu-Carroll, an IBM researcher working on the project. "Watson is a significant step, allowing people to interact with a computer as they would a human being. Watson doesn't give you a list of documents to go through but gives the user an answer."

IBM made this happen by going back to square one and analyzing the nature of questions and answers, said Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT.

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