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Posted at 10:59 AM ET, 02/16/2011

Watson, the 'Jeopardy!' computer, has grander plans

By Hayley Tsukayama

Jeopardy! practice game(2)(2).jpg (Image courtesy of IBM)

Watson, the computer that's winning hearts and cash on "Jeopardy!" this week, is more than just a pretty interface.

David F. McQueeney, vice president of IBM Research said that Watson's real applications are far more practical. The computer is actually intended to help users get a handle on unstructured data such as text, e-mails and in-company mail messages.

"We’ve been working for a long time about helping humans navigate a large amount of data, " McQueeney told Post Tech in an interview. "There's all kinds of incredibly valuable information about the way an agency runs in unstructured data, and we've been working for decades on extracting meaning and structure from it."

What McQueeney hopes IBM can do by showing Watson off on television is let people know machines have evolved to the point where they can help humans struggle with problems without having to modify all the data for a computer.

“I'm so pleased that the ‘Jeopardy!’ producers agreed to work with us,” he said, "and I'm as pleased as they are that the result was good science and good entertainment."

McQueeney has been working for decades on developing computers such as Watson, which can process unstructured queries in a snap. The barrier that has been the hardest to overcome, McQueeney said, is the complexity of human language. "It's hard for a computer to understand the way you and I speak to each other," he said. "It requires context."

For example, he said, if the computer is given the words "St. Paul," it needs some context to determine whether that phrase refers to a city in Minnesota, a person or a college.

To imagine how Watson could be used in the public and private sectors, McQueeney said, you have to imagine a different sort of data set than the one programmers used to prepare the computer for the show.

"Imagine taking Watson, and instead of feeding it song lyrics and Shakespeare, imagine feeding it medical papers and theses," he said. "And put that machine next to an expert human clinician."

With the computer intelligently processing a vast amount of data and the doctor using his or her own professional knowledge to guide and refine a search, McQueeney said, IBM thinks the quality of that diagnosis could be better than what the doctor comes up with alone.

"It's still the human doing the diagnosis; we're not going to license the machine to practice medicine," McQueeney joked. "But it provides an incredible amount of differentiation to make the human better."

Answering critics who say that Watson is little more than a search engine, McQueeney said that the computer runs much more sophisticated, targeted queries. "When people say you could use a search engine, I have to smile and say this is not the same problem. If we stood there with an Internet search engine and started paging through, well, you can’t hand Alex the top 10 documents and say you think the answer's in there somewhere, can you? You have to hand him the right answer ... or really, I guess, the right question."

Search engine are wonderful tools, he said, but not in the same time zone as Watson's results.

McQueeney said the government applications of a machine like Watson are endless.

The scale of government data is daunting, he said, adding that every government agency he's shown the computer too has thought of applications for it within seconds.

"They say, Dave, I know what I have to do and the questions I have to ask, but I don’t have tools to let me manipulate unstructured amounts of data and search for patterns. Here’s a machine doing that over a broader body of knowledge."

Being on television does expose some of Watson's limitations, however. For example, programmers had to work hard to help the computer understand the trademark puns and double meanings of the show's writing, and Watson has also given the same wrong answers as other contestants because it cannot hear. (McQueeney said they considered giving Watson a microphone to pick up sound, but couldn't finish it in time.)

The programmers took pains to make sure that Watson and his fellow contestants were on fairly equal footing. They made sure that Watson was sent a text file of the clues at the same time that his competitors see it, and programmed the computer to look for Daily Doubles in the same manner that seasoned human contestants do.

And how does Watson do in the end? McQueeney's not telling. Like all “Jeopardy!” contestants, those who work with Watson were asked to keep mouths shut.

On Tuesday, Watson ($35,734) was leading “Jeopardy!” champions Ken Jennings ($4,800) and Brad Mutter ($10,400) after the first round. The three-day match concludes today.

By Hayley Tsukayama  | February 16, 2011; 10:59 AM ET
 
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Comments

I guess you should have asked Watson to review your article to catch the typos.

Posted by: YouMustBeJoking | February 16, 2011 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Little mentioned in the press is how often Watson crashed.

From eWeek:

"Watson appeared to have breezed through Double Jeopardy, but that was apparently not the case. During the course of the game, Watson had crashed multiple times during the taping, said NOVA producer Michael Bicks, who had been at the taping of the show. The half hour match took four hours to tape, he said."

Posted by: bcastner | February 16, 2011 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Watching this event was like watching a carny sideshow. Watson had a distinct advantage in reflex time to buzz in with an answer. It wasn't so much a display of technology as a sideshow trick based upon the ability to prevent Watson's opponents from buzzing in with an answer. It was a very underwhelming display of technology.

Posted by: analyst0806 | February 16, 2011 12:27 PM | Report abuse

Just don't ask Watson to name any US Cities.

I wonder how long it took to develop Watson and what percentage of the original scope was actually delivered. I've been on an IBM-run program for a year and a half and its been "right-sized" (down-scoped) four times and our release date has already been pushed back a year. Oh, and did I mention it's a gov't program?

Posted by: eet7e | February 16, 2011 12:44 PM | Report abuse

I was less than impressed by Watson. It was very easy to predict which clues he'd have no problem with. Clues that asked for an author of a book, a city with a particular landmark, architect of a building, etc. -- he was good on all of these things because these are things that are pretty straightforward. But of course he got final jeopardy wrong: it asked for a city whose airports are named after a battle and something else -- not a question that a computer can easily dissect.

Posted by: jonnydoe1234 | February 16, 2011 1:42 PM | Report abuse

All of this has happened before, and it will happen again.

Posted by: TwoBuckChuck | February 16, 2011 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Watson missed the Final Jeopardy round (topic U.S. Cities) with his response ("What is Toronto?"), but at least the wager was small due to low confidence of a correct guess.

http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2380429,00.asp

Interesting to watch how this machine "reasons."

Posted by: TheNervousCat | February 16, 2011 4:30 PM | Report abuse

thanks for covering this, PostTech.I watched the 1st two episodes on the dvr last night,& enjoyed'em.

Posted by: Hattrik | February 16, 2011 4:44 PM | Report abuse

The name of the computer just has to be the "HAL9000" (IBM shifted one letter to the left for you non-Arthur C Clarke fans) and addressed as "HAL". The thing has to have this glowing red convex lens on the front and get sweetly malicious when it answers Mr. Trebek, particularly if he asks it to open some pod bay doors. IBM and Jeopardy have no sense of history -- when we lauched the first video game talking chip years ago, the first thing I pushed through it was, and had to be, our chip singing "Daisy".

If none of this makes any sense to you, you are a technical dead head and aren't the slightest bit ashamed that Mr. Clarke had the HAL computer born in labs in the 1990's and it was aboard a mission to Jupiter in the year 2001 -- ten years ago. All of these were plausible predictions in 1968 by drawing a straight line from Armstrong walking on the moon to the future. But the US courage, energy and innovation all ran out. Now we're lowered to spectators.

But we still have IBM and Jeopardy. And yeah, I know who Watson was -- both of them.

Posted by: tommariner | February 16, 2011 4:56 PM | Report abuse

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