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Link of the Week - Move over, Deep Blue: Watson is here

Link of the Week - Move over, Deep Blue: Watson is here

Watson (center) competes against humans in a mock Jeopardy match. To see the video this image was taken from, click on the image.

Screenshot taken by Miriam Boon. Video courtesy of IBM.

To make artificial intelligence history, Deep Blue had to defeat chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov. Now those zany IBM AI researchers are at it again, pitting their latest experiment, Watson, against champions of a much more challenging game: Jeopardy.

Watson, which runs on a Blue Gene computer, uses a variety of separate algorithms to search its memory for answers to the clues posed on the show. Then, it combines the results each algorithm returns - taking certainty into consideration - to come up with an answer. This technique has made a huge difference, according to the team lead, David Ferrucci, as quoted in a great article that appeared in the New York Times in June.

Whether Watson will win when it goes on TV in a real "Jeopardy!" match depends on whom "Jeopardy!" pits against the computer. Watson will not appear as a contestant on the regular show; instead, "Jeopardy!" will hold a special match pitting Watson against one or more famous winners from the past. If the contest includes Ken Jennings - the best player in "Jeopardy!" history, who won 74 games in a row in 2004 - Watson will lose if its performance doesn't improve. It's pretty far up in the winner's cloud, but it's not yet at Jennings's level; in the sparring matches, Watson was beaten several times by opponents who did nowhere near as well as Jennings. (Indeed, it sometimes lost to people who hadn't placed first in their own appearances on the show.) The show's executive producer, Harry Friedman, will not say whom it is picking to play against Watson, but he refused to let Jennings be interviewed for this story, which is suggestive.

Ferrucci says his team will continue to fine-tune Watson, but improving its performance is getting harder. "When we first started, we'd add a new algorithm and it would improve the performance by 10 percent, 15 percent," he says. "Now it'll be like half a percent is a good improvement."

Creating an artificial Jeopardy champion was particularly difficult because the "questions" posed on the popular television game show often use plays on words that are exceedingly difficult for a computer to interpret correctly.

The potential applications for Watson are at least as interesting as the prospect of a televised man versus machine Jeopardy match.

IBM plans to begin selling versions of Watson to companies in the next year or two. John Kelly, the head of IBM's research labs, says that Watson could help decision-makers sift through enormous piles of written material in seconds. Kelly says that its speed and quality could make it part of rapid-fire decision-making, with users talking to Watson to guide their thinking process.

"I want to create a medical version of this," he adds. "A Watson M.D., if you will." He imagines a hospital feeding Watson every new medical paper in existence, then having it answer questions during split-second emergency-room crises. "The problem right now is the procedures, the new procedures, the new medicines, the new capability is being generated faster than physicians can absorb on the front lines and it can be deployed."

Want to read more about Watson? Check out this week's link of the week, "What is IBM's Watson?"

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