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)

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"Computers tend to be very good at linear and logical processes," explained King. "With Watson, researchers basically discovered that the entire question-and-answer process is riddled with ambiguity. Watson is designed to take a single question, run different algorithms simultaneously, produce multiple answers and then rank the likelihood of correctness, and do it all in a few seconds."

According to Doherty, another significant aspect of Watson's technology is that IBM's scientists gave the machine "confidence."

"I'd never before heard the word confidence applied to a machine," said Doherty. "That's something we all need in our daily lives. We've never heard of this being applied to artificial intelligence before. In Jeopardy, if you're not confident enough, you don't buzz in. I can afford to buzz in (if my confidence level is) above 81%. I can't afford to buzz in if I'm only 79% sure."

King said the computing advances in Watson are making computer scientists re-evaluate artificial intelligence and what can be done with it.

"I would think that across the world, computer scientists are looking at this and thinking of what the next generation of AI will be," he added. "We will be getting closer and closer to the measure of AI success that was imagined in the first Star Trek series -- a computer that could be queried without using a keyboard device, that would come back with the right answer in a few seconds."

So what's next for artificial intelligence?

Chu-Carroll said computers may be learning to use actual common sense over the next five to 10 years.

"I would like to see computers be more able to understand the world much better," she added. "We're trying to code rules of common sense knowledge. Rain is wet. Dogs are animals. We'd like to address this in a more scalable way. Maybe computers could learn some of this from reading books and use them to augment their knowledge."

Doherty expects a renewed, invigorating race among artificial intelligence researchers.

"It's going to turn up the wick on research at Intel, at HP, at Oracle," said Doherty. "[Watson] is great for the market and for society. Watson will accelerate a new race. Five years from now, we'll see [an AI] revolution and a variety of new solutions."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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