IBM’s Watson

The singularity is broaching the horizon, thanks to IBM:

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.

IBM’s new supercomputer is named Watson, and like it’s chess playing counterpart Deep Blue, it’s intended focus is playing Jeopardy!  Yes, the game show hosted by Alex Trebek.  If IBM was smart, as if the Jeopardy! producers were, they would get Ken Jennings to match up with Watson in a primetime event, not dissimilar from the Deep Blue-Kasparov matches a decade ago.

By the end of the day, the seven human contestants were impressed, and even slightly unnerved, by Watson. Several made references to Skynet, the computer system in the “Terminator” movies that achieves consciousness and decides humanity should be destroyed. “My husband and I talked about what my role in this was,” Samantha Boardman, a graduate student, told me jokingly. “Was I the thing that was going to help the A.I. become aware of itself?” She had distinguished herself with her swift responses to the “Rhyme Time” puzzles in one of her games, winning nearly all of them before Watson could figure out the clues, but it didn’t help. The computer still beat her three times. In one game, she finished with no money.

“He plays to win,” Boardman said, shaking her head. “He’s really not messing around!” Like most of the contestants, she had started calling Watson “he.”

HAL, Skynet, your new overlords.  It’s just a matter of time.

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