What Is I.B.M.’s Watson? by Clive Thompson is the first in a new NY Times Magazine series called “Smarter Than You Think.” The articles are designed to examine the recent advances in artificial intelligence and robotics and their potential impact on society.
My first quibble is just who does the NY Times “You” represent? Many of us are aware of the advances – and lack thereof – in AI (Artificial Intelligence), so I do not accept the “you” sui generis but we should not waste valuable blog time on semantics. Of course, we could argue that “Watson” is all about semantics, but we won’ let that impede our discussion here.
First, we should make clear that Watson is not a super computer. Watson is actually a super program housed in a computer named Watson. And, lest you think I.B.M. has crossed into the realm of clever fiction to name this computer after Sherlock Holme’s able assistant, Watson, as in, “It’s elementary my dear Watson!” I.B.M. has not. Watson is the last name of father and son Thomas Sr. and Jr., who led I.B.M. for more than 50 years.
Thompson writes that, “For the last three years, I.B.M. scientists have been developing what they expect will be the world’s most advanced “question answering” machine, able to understand a question posed in everyday human elocution — “natural language,” as computer scientists call it — and respond with a precise, factual answer. In other words, it must do more than what search engines like Google and Bing do, which is merely point to a document where you might find the answer. It has to pluck out the correct answer itself. Technologists have long regarded this sort of artificial intelligence as a holy grail, because it would allow machines to converse more naturally with people, letting us ask questions instead of typing keywords. Software firms and university scientists have produced question-answering systems for years, but these have mostly been limited to simply phrased questions. Nobody ever tackled “Jeopardy!” because experts assumed that even for the latest artificial intelligence, the game was simply too hard: the clues are too puzzling and allusive, and the breadth of trivia is too wide.”
Ahhh, clearly I have missed a beat here. I never realized that “Jeopardy!” was the sine qua non of intelligence.
Thompson reports, David Ferrucci’s, I.B.M.’s senior manager for its Semantic Analysis and Integration department, and head of the Watson project, main breakthrough [my note: in creating a program aka super computer which could compete on “Jeopardy!”] “was not the design of any single, brilliant new technique for analyzing language. Indeed, many of the statistical techniques Watson employs were already well known by computer scientists. One important thing that makes Watson so different is its enormous speed and memory. Taking advantage of I.B.M.’s supercomputing heft, Ferrucci’s team input millions of documents into Watson to build up its knowledge base — including, he says, “books, reference material, any sort of dictionary, thesauri, folksonomies, taxonomies, encyclopedias, any kind of reference material you can imagine getting your hands on or licensing. Novels, bibles, plays.”
Watson’s speed allows it to try thousands of ways of simultaneously tackling a “Jeopardy!” clue. 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. Another set of algorithms ranks these answers according to plausibility; for example, if dozens of algorithms working in different directions all arrive at the same answer, it’s more likely to be the right one. In essence, Watson thinks in probabilities. It produces not one single “right” answer, but an enormous number of possibilities, then ranks them by assessing how likely each one is to answer the question.”
Read the article in its entirety for it is fascinating in unexpected ways. And you, too, can pit your mettle against Watson’s in your own personal game of “Jeopardy!”: Watson Trivia Challenge. Above all, do not miss the readers’ rich, intelligent and reasoned comments on this article. I have included a few (anonymously) below:
Comment # 4. “…But it’s been a long time since we’ve been toying with this idea of a computer competing with a human for intelligent answers to questions. Take a look at the 1957 movie “Desk Set” with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.”
Comment # 6. “While I am certainly impressed by it, Watson is not truly artificial intelligence or the holy grail that represents. AI requires abstraction, creativity, situational awareness and so forth. This is a speech recognition to keyword database search to speech synthesis machine on steroids. Impressive gimmick, but no HAL9000.”
Comment #14. (Speaking of purchasing stocks) “Predicting the illogical or ‘gut’ feelings of a given investor is not possible since the investor has no idea what they will do until they do it. It would be difficult to write an algorithm that can predict the random behavior involved with such choices.”
Comment # 36. “Watson reminds me of the computer in the old I.B.M. building on 57th and Madison that had a computer and printer/typewriter in the window. You could ask it questions and it would come up with answers. So what’s new? It’s still all about the programming, and still all about how much information can be crammed into Watson’s very limited — compared to a human being’s — memory.”
One of my particular favorites is # 32. “The real question is whether Watson, not being human, can ever ‘learn’ from its mistakes?”