The first words publicly spoken by a talking computer named Watson were, "What is Jericho?" Now the supercomputer by the same name, developed by IBM, is gearing up to take on US game show Jeopardy, challenging grand masters at their own game.
Former Jeopardy all-time champions Ken Jennings (left) and Brad Rutter flank a TV screen connected to Watson, a computer capable of challenging and potentially beating them in the famed game show.(Credit: Caroline McCarthy/CNET)
Watson was following the rules. Like any contestant on Jeopardy, the IBM Research-built machine was required to phrase his answer in the form of a question. And Watson was playing Jeopardy. More specifically, it was a test run yesterday morning at IBM Research's headquarters in preparation for a televised weekend challenge against famed Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, and Watson nearly shut out those champions in a category about female archaeologists called "Chicks Dig It".
But then in the category's final answer, Ken Jennings — who holds the record for winning the most consecutive Jeopardy games in a row — bested Watson. Jennings' question-phrased response: "What is a Neanderthal?"
It was a fitting start to the test match, because what Watson is really all about is what separated us from the Neanderthals in the first place: the evolution of high-level intelligence, the complexities of the Homo sapiens brain, the depths of human cognition and whether we have finally begun to crack the code in creating a human-built machine that can start to approach this kind of grasp on language.
From folklore hero John Henry's Pyrrhic victory against a steam-powered steel hammer to Arthur C. Clarke's HAL 9000 and the Superman foe Brainiac, the narrative of human versus machine has fuelled sentiments of both excitement and fear. Now there's Watson, named for IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, whose creators at IBM say is a hallmark of far more significant accomplishments than being able to challenge both Jennings and fellow Jeopardy champ Brad Rutter in a question-and-answer match. They also want the world to know he isn't evil (yet).
"We are at a very special moment in time here," IBM Research director John E. Kelly III told the audience. "We're at a moment in time where computers and computer capability has approached in this dimension the ability of humans, and the fact that the demonstration was so close shows that these two beings, these two lines are crossing. What will happen in the final tournament, we don't know."
Watson cannot see or hear, which means it cannot handle Jeopardy audio or visual clues, but it can wager on Daily Doubles. It can read and speak, and is packed full of dictionaries, reference books, thesauri and an impressive literary canon, but it is not connected to the internet and therefore has no Google-enabled advantage over a human competitor.
The game's prompts are fed to Watson, whose hardware fills an entire room underneath the auditorium in which the televised Jeopardy challenges will take place, in plain text at the same time that they appear on-screen for the human contestants. Over the past four years, IBM researchers improved the computer's capability first to answer enough questions correctly so that it would keep a positive score in the game, then to respond correctly at the rate of the average Jeopardy player (about 60 per cent accuracy) and then enough to challenge Jeopardy legends like Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.
In Thursday's test match, Watson narrowly beat Jennings, who made up for his lack of knowledge of female archaeologists like Mary Leakey and Dorothy Garrod by dominating a "Children's Books" category, and more soundly defeated Rutter ("Watson and I don't have kids," Rutter surmised afterwards with regard to Jennings' dominance in the kiddie-lit category).
IBM's legacy of machine-versus-man gameplay goes back a decade and a half: in 1996, an IBM-built computer called "Deep Blue" became the first machine to beat a reigning world chess champion when it defeated the Russian chess master Garry Kasparov; Kasparov won the overall match. An upgraded version of Deep Blue then soundly defeated Kasparov the following year, and the defeated chess champion accused IBM of breaking the rules by giving the computer some kind of human assistance.
"Off of that we got tremendous computer science learning that is applied to our systems today," Kelly explained, saying that he believes the research behind Watson will "have impacts on society far beyond the latest widgets that people are worrying about today".
That's because IBM, which is currently commemorating its 100th anniversary, believes that Watson represents a ground-breaking innovation in artificial intelligence because of its ability to process the complexities, nuances and subtleties of human language. This is something that could have far-reaching implications in fields as varied as academia, government and particularly healthcare.
"We've created a system that can interact in a very, very special way," Kelly said. In artificial intelligence, "People spend their lifetimes trying to advance that science inches. What Watson does, and has demonstrated, is the ability to advance the field of art intelligence by miles. People who are experts in this area who have seen Watson privately said, 'I never thought I would have seen this in my lifetime'."
It was a significantly bigger challenge to build than Deep Blue, according to David Ferrucci, the IBM Research "investigator" in charge of building DeepQA, the "massively parallel probabilistic evidence-based architecture technology" that powers Watson and has been in development since 2007.
"Jeopardy is a very, very different challenge than chess," Ferrucci said. "In chess we have this finite, mathematically-defined search space, very precise rules, and we need a very different sort of algorithm ... It's explicit, it's unambiguous, it's exacting. When we deal with language things are very, very different."
Watson's big challenge will come later this week when he makes his television debut, which Kelly called "an excellent challenge against which we can measure the progress of this system". It's also a charitable endeavour: Rutter and Jennings will donate half their winnings to charity, whereas every dollar won by Watson will be donated to either humanitarian organisation World Vision or IBM social research foundation World Community Grid. And when the game is over, IBM Research will turn to investigating Watson's more serious purposes.
As it turns out, Watson also has some comedic skills, eliciting some chuckles from the audience when, after successfully responding to four prompts about female archaeologists, declared in his computerised monotone, "Let's finish 'Chicks Dig It'."
But then, as it turns out, Ken Jennings snagged that US$1000 answer. Neanderthals, indeed.