January 27, 2015

Scaling Your Business, Trends and Insights 4 min read

Watson: The Creation of the Genius Jeopardy Computer

Watson is an artificially intelligent supercomputer that can answer questions posed in natural language. IBM's principal investigator, David Ferruci, led the DeepQA research project to create Watson. Its demonstration on the "Jeopardy!" show was a monumental breakthrough for the artificial intelligence community. Watson is the first supercomputer to move beyond the limited constraints of human-computer interaction. In fact, Watson's question-answering capability allows multiple industries to apply this technology for good use. Watson stands as a testament to the great depth of innovation behind it and continues to evolve to become one of greatest technological achievements in human history.

What is Watson?

Many have heard about the supercomputer that defeated two "Jeopardy!" champions. "What is Watson?" would appear on the blue screen of any "Jeopardy!" fan who knows about this faceless champion. Watson is one of the world's most advanced question-answering machines: It understands questions in natural language and processes them the same way a human brain computes information. Watson does more than processes information, though: It responds with precise, factual answers. This makes it greatly different from search engines like Google and Bing, which merely point to a document with the right answer. Watson actually goes a step further and answers the question directly. Technologists refer to this form of artificial intelligence as the "holy grail" because it allows humans and computers to interact with each other more naturally than through typing keywords.

The Science Behind Watson

For years, software firms and university scientists produced question-answering systems. However, the majority of these systems fell short of answering elaborately phrased questions. In 1997, IBM engineered supercomputer Deep Blue that defeated grandmaster Garry Kasparov at chess. But while this monumental breakthrough stunned most of the artificial intelligence community, it did not produce technology that could be applied in business. In the past decade, question-answering systems have emerged to become the next step between human and computer interaction. Deep Blue could only play chess: Watson can understand the intended meaning behind a question and provide a correct answer. No other artificial intelligence system could decode allusive statements and connotations found in every sentence like Watson.

Watson has enormous speed and memory that allows it to process questions in natural language. It accesses the millions of documents inputted into its memory. Watson uses more than 100 algorithms at the same time to analyze a question in different ways. This allows it to generate hundreds of possible solutions. A percent of these algorithms rank these answers based on probability. If dozens of these algorithms working in different directions arrive at the same answer, then it will most likely answer correctly. Watson also uses algorithms that cross-check answers.

Watson Competes on "Jeopardy!"

In 2008, IBM representatives contacted "Jeopardy!" about the idea of having Watson compete against two of the show's most successful contestants. After the program producers agreed, IBM expressed their concerns that the show's writers would exploit Watson's cognitive weaknesses, turning the competition into a Turing test. As a result, the producers agreed to use a third party to randomly pick the clues from ones previously written for other shows that were never broadcast. The "Jeopardy!" staff also expressed concerns over Watson's ability to press the buzzer to answer the questions. The IBM staff planned to have Watson signal electronically, but the show's staff wanted the artificial creation to physically push a button like human contestants. Further issues arose that almost led to the competition's cancellation.

IBM built a mock set in a conference room in order to simulate a live game of "Jeopardy!" Human players competed against Watson in mock games: IBM ran about 100 test matches with Watson, winning 65 percent of them. To provide a visual representation of Watson, IBM gave the supercomputer an avatar to appear just above its spot on the game show. The game show recorded a practice match on January 13th, 2011, which resulted in Watson winning a 15-question round. After two successful matches, Watson went ahead to compete in a final round. The prizes for the final competition were $1 million for first place, $300,000 for second place, and $200,000 for third place. Watson earned first place by a landslide.

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