IBM yesterday revealed its plans to build a question answering (QA) computing system – codenamed Watson – that can understand complex questions and answer with enough precision and speed to compete on Jeopardy!. After two years of development IBM's researchers plan to put Watson to the test by pitting it against human contestants on the hit show.
This isn’t the first time Big Blue has put machine against man; in 1997 IBM defeated World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov by building a computer that could calculate 200 million chess moves per second based on a fixed problem. Watson is a little different, says IBM.
According to Dr. David Ferrucci, leader of the IBM Watson project team, who spoke to PCWorld, Watson spent a lot of time studying. "The system would have 'read' many, many natural language texts -- books, reference materials, all kinds of information -- and tried to analyze and organize that information in such a way that it can see the meaning of the question and try to figure out what are likely answers," Ferrucci said.
Addressing the issue of self assurance, Ferrucci said determining the confidence is a really big part of the challenge. "Humans can know what they know very rapidly. This is something the Watson computer is working very hard to do."
Dr. David Ferrucci and IBM's Watson
While it all sounds like a lot of fun and game shows (i.e., a huge but interesting waste of money), IBM says the research behind Watson is expected to vastly improve computer intelligence and human-to-computer communication. The company says it intends to use the technology being developed for Watson to help clients across a wide variety of industries answer business questions quickly and accurately.
“Progress on the underlying QA technologies enabling Watson will be important in the quest to understand and build ‘intelligent computing systems’ capable of cooperating with humans in language-related tasks previously out of reach for computers,” added Dr. David Ferrucci, leader of the IBM Watson project team.