Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Not so Elementary Watson

Or I’ll take 3 pounds of grey goo for $1000, Alex

This week International Business Machine (or IBM for short) faired its Watson supercomputer in a Jeopardy! match against former Jeopardy! grand champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. In short the computer won.

Watson is a supercomputer. Represented at his Jeopardy podium by an avatar on a flat-screen and a voice eerily reminiscent of HAL 9000, the real Watson was in a server room next door. Consisting of several racks of dozens of IBM servers each. The total area of Watson takes up about as much room as four standard sized book cases. But to make Watson work he is housed in a special climate-controlled server room that feels something like a meat locker if you were to walk in there. All in all Watson would fill up the area of a very nice sized living room.

According to IBM’s Watson website:

Operating on a single CPU, it could take Watson two hours to answer a single question. A typical Jeopardy! contestant can accomplish this feat in less than three seconds. For Watson to rival the speed of its human competitors in delivering a single, precise answer to a question requires custom algorithms, terabytes of storage and thousands of POWER7 computing cores working in a massively parallel system

That’s a lot of effort just to be able to compete with three pounds of grey goo that comes as standard equipment on every human. And your brain is a lot more portable than Watson.

As Jennings said in his final Jeopardy response: “I for one welcome our new computer overlords” (borrowing a line from “The Simpsons”). But are the computers taking over? Has Watson had an original idea yet? The answer is likely “no”. While Watson can filter an incomprehensible amount of data in to a few probable answers in just a few seconds, but Watson has no creativity. Like a desktop calculator, your iPhone or's "recommended for you" Watson knows only what he is told, and cannot formulate his own thoughts. That is where humans still hold the advantage.

That being said, had Jennings bet enough to best Watson in final Jeopardy would Watson eventually send a cyborg back in time to kill Jennings’ mother?