Answer: It’s the first computer of its kind to understand natural human language and will prove it in a three-day competition on the quiz show “Jeopardy!” Question: What is IBM Watson? Now, the details.

By now you’ve no doubt heard about the three-day competition in February 2011 that pits IBM Watson against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter – the two most celebrated “Jeopardy!” contestants in the history of the show – in a show of processing might. But this competition is much different from IBM Deep Blue’s trouncing of chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997, when lightning-fast computations ruled the day. Watson is all about understanding – and reacting to – human language in its natural form, and “Jeopardy!”, with its phrase-turns and wordplays, is the perfect environment to test its capabilities.

Think (Really) Different

Indeed, Watson is the first computer to demonstrate cognition, the first stepping stone to the future of artificial intelligence. Fans of “Star Trek” can compare Watson to the simply named “Computer” aboard the SS Enterprise, which provided a wealth of information almost instantaneously when asked a question. (In contrast, don’t compare it to HAL 9000 of “2001: A Space Odyssey” fame, lest you be shot out of an airlock.)

A lucky few (myself included) were treated to a “test run” of Watson vs. Jennings vs. Rutter in a press conference at the IBM headquarters, where the Jeopardy set was erected and Jimmy McGuire, a member of the “Jeopardy!” Clue Crew, posed the questions (Alex Trebek, regular host, was on hand to answer audience questions following the test run). At the end of the first round, the score was Watson, $4,400; Jennings, $2,400; and Rutter, $1,200 – not a sound beating, but a good indication of how the actual competition will play out.

But even though it’s fun to see the technology in action, there has to be more to Watson than answers in the form of questions. And there is, according to John E. Kelly III, IBM senior vice president and director of IBM Research, who noted that the knowledge gained in developing Watson could be used in any number of areas, from healthcare to government. “I cannot imagine a single industry where there isn’t the potential to be transformed with this technology,” he said.

Vertical Genius

In fact, IBM is setting its sights first on in incorporating Watson’s capabilities into health care, where Kelly firmly believes Watson can be used to create a “Dr. Watson, and we can probably save lives with it.”

Added David Ferrucci, principal investigator of Watson DeepOA technology at IBM Research: “We are at a time where the capability of machines is so close to the capability of humans. This technology doubles in speed every 24 to 48 months.”


Jennings and Rutter both seemed to take the onslaught of artificial intelligence – and the distinct probability that Watson will beat them -- in stride. “Watson itself doesn’t concern me,” Rutter quipped, “but when Watson’s progeny comes back in time to kill me, I have my escape route all planned out.”

“A friend of mind told me to remember John Henry, the steel-driving man,” added Jennings. “I said, ‘Forget John Henry. Remember John Connor!”

Let’s hope “The Terminator” was not a biopic.

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