Friday, January 14, 2011

It's a tight race between man and machine

IBM's extraordinary Watson is taking on two celebrated Jeopardy champions and the computer is holding its own.
Our robot overlord isn’t named HAL or SkyNET -- it’s Watson.

After four years of development, IBM on Thursday publicly unveiled a computing system that specializes in analyzing natural human language and answering complex questions. In other words, it’s really good at Jeopardy!.

To test its acumen, the machine was pitted in an exhibition match against the most celebrated human contestants, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, to stunning effect. Watson quickly cleared out the entire first category without the humans getting even a buzz in.
Tune in February 14, 15, and 16 to see how the contest comes out, but here's a hint.
It is that human factor that makes Watson so innovative yet in a way also somewhat unsettling, perfectly echoed by the vignette of an empty space between the two contestants on stage. At one point, upon finishing the last question in the category “Girls Dig Me,” Watson even made a joke -- causing the audience to erupt in laughter and applause.

It seems IBM's machine was not only smart, it was funny.

With this milestone passed, fears of a machine-led takeover seem premature, but the topic was certainly on the minds of contestants. Jennings put it best, saying he was probably less John Henry and more John Connor.

“[HAL 9000] is science fiction,” Ferucci admitted. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near that or going in that direction. One inspiration for this kind of technology from science fiction, at least for me, is the computer on Star Trek. They built a system that helps you with your information needs, understands your question, organizes it, and presents it in a way that you can digest it quickly.”

Though Watson ended the exhibition in the lead with $4,400 compared to Jenning’s $3,400 and Rutter’s $1,200, a continuation of that battle shown on internal televisions during lunch revealed that Jenning had pulled ahead after scoring a Daily Double. Watson still isn’t perfect, it seems.

While she wouldn’t reveal specific numbers, one IBMer revealed that Watson has lost during recent practice runs to lesser opponents. Ken Jennings, of course, is on a completely different level. The computer programmer shot to public prominence when he won a record 74 consecutive games, netting him more than $2.5 million in winnings.

And while Watson operates operates on calculated confidence, buzzing in if it knows to a certain degree the right answer, people -- Jennings in particular -- use intuition, often buzzing in before they even know the answer simply because they feel like they know it, giving him a concrete speed advantage.

Watson is constantly improving, of course. Kelly estimates an increase of 50% every 20 months it spends learning. Ferrucci was quick to remind the audience who was in charge.

After all, it was humans who built Watson in the first place.
Go humans!