Anything but trivial

IBM’s new supercomputer is a breakthrough in artificial intelligence.

by Julian Switala

If you were on the game show “Jeopardy!” and were asked, “What U.S. cityâÄôs largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest for a WWII battle?” chances are that you wouldnâÄôt guess “Toronto.” Yet that is exactly what Watson, IBMâÄôs newest supercomputer, answered.

This embarrassing gaff aside, donâÄôt underestimate WatsonâÄôs computational abilities.

Just last week, Watson competed against the two most successful players in “Jeopardy!” history, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, and absolutely crushed them.

While WatsonâÄôs answer may seem unforgivably stupid, the computing that occurs within WatsonâÄôs 2,880 computer cores and 15 terabyte memory qualifies it as one of the most sophisticated computers on the planet.

If you think back to Deep Blue âÄî the IBM computer that defeated chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov âÄî that computer was certainly an achievement. However, it was a computer built for a single-purpose: playing chess.

WatsonâÄôs achievement on “Jeopardy!”, on the other hand, is far more impressive. This is because the ability to understand natural language has long been a problem for computers.

Natural language âÄî the communicative medium used by humans âÄî is full of puns, allusions, subtle humor, double entendres and words with multiple meanings.

This makes understanding whatâÄôs being asked a far more difficult task than arriving at several potential answers and ranking their probabilistic correctness.

Before Watson, computers demanded unambiguous command prompts, not open-ended statements that can be interpreted in a number of ways.

With the successful development of Watson, the serious implications of this new technology canâÄôt be overlooked.

First, the relevance and value of trivia buffs will certainly decrease. The Internet has made extinct the need to call a friend to verify information or to memorize obscure facts. Watson is adding to this phenomenon.

To be fair, this is already occurring now that weâÄôre living in a Google world. However, Google relies on keywords and merely points to websites which may have the correct answer âÄî it doesnâÄôt even try to find the precise answer.

ItâÄôs so incredibly painless to search for an answer that rote memorization is now becoming an antiquated form of brain usage. Why remember anything when you have an iPhone?

In spite of the fact that we can instantly look up information on almost any subject, knowing things without the aid of a computer is still valuable.

Jennings agrees, stating that, “To make informed decisions about anything in life, you need to have knowledge. If you need a Google search, youâÄôre still at a disadvantage.”

Another implication which has people scared is that the technology behind Watson will leave thousands âÄî if not millions âÄî of people jobless.

Of course, in the short-run, such technology can definitely make obsolete certain menial tasks currently assigned to workers. However, this form of technology isnâÄôt exclusively tied to the artificial intelligence camp; itâÄôs also a contributor to intelligence augmentation.

Rather than completely replacing humans and replicating their thought processes, Watson would enhance our ability to do our jobs.

A brief look at history instantly proves this point. Growth and job-creation typically outpace any jobs which may be replaced. For instance, the U.S. moved from being a largely agrarian workforce to one in which less than 1 percent is in the agricultural industry.

These workers didnâÄôt become unemployed, they simply changed professions. This process of intelligence augmentation is immediately noticeable when considering the practical applications of the Watson technology.

Given that the IBMâÄôs “Deep Question Answering” computer is an advanced information retrieval system, this technology is best suited for tasks requiring analysis of large volumes of information in a short period of time.

As such, the first realm in which this technology will be applied is healthcare. IBM researchers are currently looking at how it can assist nurses and doctors in their day-to-day duties.

One duty is making patient diagnoses, a task which would ideally allow for instant consideration of newly published medical journals, reference materials, cutting-edge research, prior case studies and many other information sources.

Here at the University of Minnesota, computational biologists are also making advances. A paper published by College of Science and Engineering alumnus Gaurav Pandey, department head Vipin Kumar and assistant professor Chad Myers developed a system to predict genetic interactions, which could help cure diseases.

Another application of the Watson computing technology is in finances where analysts must consider more information than humanly possible.

Despite these remarkable advancements in computer technology, the real winners arenâÄôt the computers, but us.

IBMâÄôs Watson was developed in four years by a team of human researchers, thus representing the ingenuity of humanity.

And if youâÄôre still not convinced by the power of the human mind, perhaps Jennings will placate you.

“My puny human brain, just a few bucks worth of water, salts, and proteins, hung in there just fine against a jillion-dollar supercomputer.”


Julian Switala welcomes comments at [email protected].