IBM's Watson not as smart as you think

But increasing compute power will mean 'smart' products for everyone, MIT prof says

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- As smart as IBM's Watson supercomputer may have seemed while defeating two former Jeopardy champions, it wouldn't be able to hold a conversation with or speak intelligently to the attendees at its own conference, according to artificial intelligence (A.I.) experts who spoke at MIT Monday.

"Although Watson is a tremendous engineering achievement, there are some things it can't do," said Patrick Henry Winston, a professor and former director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. "For example, if there was a conference about Watson, Watson couldn't attend. It would have nothing to say about itself. It can't participate in discussions about how it works."

Winston was among dozens of researchers who spoke at MIT's Computation and the Transformation of Practically Everything symposium, which is part of the school's 150-year anniversary celebration this year. The symposium continues today.

Winston pointed out that after computer scientists, such as James Slagle, began producing A.I. programs in the early 1960s, the scientific community and the public believed computers would have general intelligence within a few years. That didn't happen.

"Apparently what we forgot or overlooked is the idea that it's much harder to produce programs that have common sense than it is to produce programs that behave at expert levels in very narrow technical domains," he said.

IBM's Watson computer can answer questions posed in natural language in near real time. Unlike mainframe-style supercomputers of the past, Watson is made up of 90 IBM Power 750 Express servers powered by eight-core processors -- four in each machine, for a total of 32 processors per machine. The servers are virtualized using a Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM) implementation, creating a server cluster with a total processing capacity of 80 teraflops. A teraflop is one trillion operations per second.

However, what Watson lacks is the ability to connect life experiences to form cohesive thoughts, which is what gives humans their cognitive ability, Winston explained.

Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, also took a shot at Watson.

Lazowska noted that after Watson's initial victory in February on Jeopardy, the machine was then handily defeated soon thereafter by Rep. Rush Holt, (D-N.J.), during a technology demonstration on Capital Hill. Holt, a nuclear physicist and five-time "Jeopardy" winner, beat the computer with a score of $8,600 to $6,200.

"It shows we need more physicists in Congress. Rush is the only one," Lazowska quipped.

While Watson may not be able to have an intelligent conversation, its appearance on "Jeopardy" heralded a sea change in A.I. brought about by multicore processors, clustered computing and sophisticated computer management software.

The computational power that got man to the moon in the late 1960s is now "embodied in Furby". "Admittedly, not the best use of that computational power," Lazowska said.

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