Instrumented Interconnecteds Intelligent

ibmwatsonThe contest between man and machine on Jeopardy! was decided when IBM’s Watson computer landed on the second Daily Double on day three.  The clue was: “This two-word phrase means the power to take private property for public use as long as there is just compensation.” Watson’s response: “What is eminent domain?”

The audience (mostly IBMers, since the show was taped in an IBM Research auditorium) went nuts. Former Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings covered his mouth with his hands. He knew the contest was likely over. “Ken realizes he can’t catch up,” David Ferrucci, head of the IBM Research team that created Watson, commented at a viewing of the Jeopardy! segments on Monday morning.

A few minutes later it was over. But our wondering about its implications has only just begun.

Watson had shown some of his limitations during this segment. The computer totally misunderstood the category that required the answers to also be a type of key on a computer keyboard, and, in another category, Actors who Direct, he knew the answers but the humans beat him to the buzzer.

Yet the overall impression created by Watson during three days of competition was how “smart” he was–and not just how smart for a computer. He had beaten humans at a game that is considered to be a fair measure of human intelligence. Watson finished with $77,147, compared to $24,000 for Jennings and $21,600 for Brad Rutter, another top Jeopardy! champion.

But does Watson really think? This is a question that Ferrucci frequently hears from journalists. He’s wary of making bold pronouncements. When I asked him the question on Monday, he answered: “How do you define think? Does a submarine swim?”  His point is that Watson doesn’t think the same way that we humans do, but he’s thinking none the less.

Thousands of little algorithms allow Watson to break down human language into pieces, search for answers in his vast database of information, and assess his confidence in the accuracy of the potential answers he comes up with.  He answers questions without truly understanding them, but he answers them none the less.

A debate is raging about the future relationship of computers and humans. Will the machines become smarter than we are? In addition to the formidable coverage of Watson’s Jeopardy! match, The Atlantic and Time magazines took on the issue in recent cover stories. Ever since the first electronic computers were created in the 1940s, they have been compared to human brains. Now they’re actually capable of doing some very sophisticated thinking–as the Jeopardy! contest illustrates. And, in the not-to0-distant future, it seems likely, they will be smarter than us in a lot of ways.

The implications are huge. This crossing over, which computer scientist Ray Kurzweil calls “the singularity,” may not happen in 2045, as Kurzweil predicts, but it will happen in some form some day. We humans will have to prepare for it–agreeing to and enforcing a set of rules governing the use of computers similarly to the way we deal with genetics.

In the meantime, the Deep QA technology that’s the “brains” behind Watson is nothing to fear. It’s a tool for extending the capabilities of humans, not for replacing them or controlling them. Humans have faced these kinds of challenges with each major advance in technology over the short history of our species. We create machines  to do some of the things we do quicker or better or cheaper– and we figure out something else to do with our strong arms and supple brains. We reinvent ourselves.

Ferrucci, for one, isn’t worried that computers will become our masters someday. “I think human intelligence will continue to subsume computer intelligence–not the other way around,” he said. “The Internet came along. It didn’t consume us. We consumed it.”

Some explanations of how Watson plays Jeopardy! from IBM researchers.

Here’s how Watson knows what it knows from Jon Lenchner:

Here’s a post on Watson’s wagering strategies from Gerald Tesauro:

Here’s some info on how Watson sees, hears and speaks from Dave Gondek:

Here and here are a couple of essays by Stephen Baker, author of Final Jeopardy, on matters of machine intelligence.

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Posted by: Larry Slocki
February 18, 2011
6:20 pm

Alex, What is “heuristics”?

Posted by: Larry Slocki
February 18, 2011
6:08 pm

@ Red Pad – please take this in the good humor in which it is intended, but it would have been great if your name was an “answer” and we got to listen to Watson pronounce it :-)

Posted by: Larry Slocki
February 18, 2011
6:01 pm

To Padyala,

Well put. There is another problem that has vexed computers – the optimization of constructing the legs of a trip. After 5 or 6 destinations, it becomes insolvable for the computer- at least within the timescale that a bright human brain can solve it with “common sense” and intuition. As a matter of fact, until recently, Major League Baseball contracted with a family in Pennsylvania who sat down at the kitchen table to make out each teams season schedule. On top of the road trip optimization, they had to take into account which teams traditionally have certain holidays at home amongst other subtle nuances. For some reason, the human mind is exceptional at pattern recognition and intuitive elimination of non-sensical options. Those attributes are also what makes us laugh at a good joke.

Posted by: Larry Slocki
February 18, 2011
5:42 pm

To Mark S.

Thank you so much for your comments. I think we are on exactly the same page. Giving a computer a text input is distinctly different from presenting humans with text and audio input while they have to keep an eye on a light to see when they are allowed to buzz in. Given those disadvantages it is actually more amazing that the human contestants did as well as they did – considering IBM very nearly had to construct a nuclear power plan to run Watson. I also don’t get the big deal about not having Internet access. One would think when Watson comes out as a commercial application it will have such access since the average person doesn’t have half a city block of hard disk space. It would have been interesting to see how Watson would have done if he/it had to capture the “question” with a webcam, convert it to a searchable PDF then have to mechanically push a buzzer 3 feet away. Like another poster wrote, what if the rules required the contestant to lift a thousand pound weight to buzz in. Bottom line, it was like having the Royals compete against the Yankees half-billion dollar payroll while giving the Yankees 4 outs an inning to boot.

Posted by: Larry Slocki
February 18, 2011
12:52 pm

To Larry Slocki,
I mostly agree with you. Except Watson does not see or hear. Watson gets electronically what Trebek says. What would have been fairer if Watson would not get electronically what trebek says. Rather Watson should have a microphone to hear trebek. In addition, Watson should have a camera to read the screen. More transparency with Watson would also help. Watson should have a large finger, visible to everyone, that presses the buzzer. Do this again and see if Watson still wins.

Posted by: Mark S.
February 18, 2011
1:22 am

A computer can never beat human intelligence. Human intelligence is not fixed, it evolves and computer only can never lead.
Let us consider a simple example: We pose the following question: Can a person cross a still river if the average depth of the river on his path is less than the length of the person from foot to chin? The computer’s answer will always be yes, but a human’s answer would be a conditional yes. If we apply the problem to any real river, the computer’s answer would be true. But we know simply that such an answer based on the average depth never guarantees the person to cross the river.
The logic of second law of statistical thermodynamics is based on averages in a more subtle way than that described in our example above.
The point we emphasize is that, it is impossible for us to fix all possible conditions that govern a real life situation, which forms the input for a computer.

Posted by: Radhakrishnamurty Padyala
February 17, 2011
10:58 pm

So, when are you going to hook up Watson to the Internet and let us ask him questions? :)

Posted by: Jeff
February 17, 2011
5:19 pm

Thank you for your comments. Many were used during today’s live TEDtalk.

You can view a replay of today’s TEDtalk with members of the IBM Watson team here –


Posted by: Kevin Winterfield
February 17, 2011
3:07 pm

Congrats to the team. Well done!
Just one request: Watson is not human. Therefore, please stop referring to it as ‘he’.

Posted by: Leo Haas
February 17, 2011
2:12 pm

The point is that the match-up might have only shown that the computer can turn on a light bulb faster than the rate limiting time inherent in firing the synapses required to complete the reflex arc between the frontal lobe and the thumb. The first proposal would control for that latency.

Posted by: Larry Slocki
February 17, 2011
2:06 pm

We can now have Watson become President.
Congrats Watson…. but congrats to the real human brains behind ‘Watson’s brain”… This human is not worried yet.

Posted by: Gaitrie R.
February 17, 2011
1:39 pm

I think this would have been an arrangement that would have been more fair. A human would be stationed behind Watson. The human could only “click in” after Watson flashed its answer on a screen visible only to the human. Another arrangement would be to have the “answers” only read aloud and not seen by either human or Watson. All the processing would be by voice recognition only. I think humans would probably win either of these game schemes.

Posted by: Larry Slocki
February 17, 2011
12:11 pm

It was a great show

Posted by: Auctioneer
February 17, 2011
12:08 pm

Government oversight is needed now into artificial intelligence so we can all be sure IBM is proceeding ethically and safely toward the day when computers can easily replace us.

Evolution is marching forward with our help towards our own extinction unless we proceed very carefully.

Posted by: Eric
February 17, 2011
10:51 am

In order to eliminate the issue on speed in hitting the buzzer, why not have the three contestants compete where Brad and Ken write their answers and each contestant wins or loses on each question based on their answers?

Posted by: Bert Peronilla
February 17, 2011
10:27 am

Thank you IBM!
I am a Computer Science major at NDSU. I have been studying theoretical computer science over the past 2 semesters and I have not been a fan of it by any means. This challenge showed me what we as humans are capable of. It has put meaning behind what I thought was a meaningless class. Watching Watson destroy all humans in Jeopardy was very inspirational and made me think just how important knowledge, learning, and communication are for us as a society.

Posted by: Ryan Knudson
February 17, 2011
10:10 am

It was an awesome display of computing skill, but it failed as a game because of a simple problem: we expect that machines can push a buzzer faster than humans.

If the game required the right answer, PLUS lifting one ton, we would expect a machine to have an advantage.

The buzzer latency should have been adjusted to match the click speed of human beings, because it ruined the “game” aspect of the demonstration.

Both human players did a nice job of not complaining about the unfair gameplay, but I think Ken did an especially great job representing meatworld, and his final answer was one for the ages.

Posted by: Martin Snyder
February 17, 2011
9:24 am

Let me express my highest and warmest congratulations to the Watson Team. You made us all very proud to be IBMers. This is all the more so in our 100th year.

I think that one of the most interesting points so far was expressed by Alan T:

“If Watson gives faulty advice in industry, who is liable?”

Will Watson’s possibilities be limited by legal issues? How much of our energy and potential is wasted due to legal aspects that are simply motivated by man’s greed? I think that only time will answer this question.

Posted by: Stephen Kessler
February 17, 2011
8:37 am

“And, in the not-to-distant future, it seems likely, they will be smarter than us in a lot of ways.”

Considering the poor grammar in the article, it seems that computers are already smarter than ‘we’ in a lot of ways.

Posted by: TG
February 17, 2011
8:29 am

My warmest congratulations to the team responsible for Watson, and to Watson himself, although I doubt he has the ability to recognize such a thing.

My first example was HAL, then years later, the Apple Knowledge Navigator concept clip. All you need to do is keep improving the code, the hardware shrinkage will catch up by the time I’m 60. (I’m 49 now).

You really ought to consider taking Watson on a tour of the US, have other contests at colleges, distribute Grants, or scholarships in AI research, as you go to help grow the field.

Posted by: Joel Bradshaw
February 17, 2011
6:59 am

Ya boo sucks to the detractors here. This was something that had not been taken onbefore and IBM did it. Why? Because ibmers are obsessed with innovation and technologies that matter. This is not about indecipherable white papers, patents or academic theses this is real and has broad applications in life.

Ferucci, Gondak and team – you are true rock stars!

Posted by: Glyn Tomkins
February 17, 2011
5:56 am

This project is what makes IBMers vibrate. I’m excited looking forward to what all this will bring us. Congratulations to the team that made this happen ! Allow me following observation though : in contrast with the report on Day 2, the Day 3 report refers to Watson as a person. In the Day 2 report I remember reading references to Watson as “it”. In Day 3 it becomes “he” and “him”. Whatever its name, “Watson” is a computer – an object – so, “it”. Let’s not fall in the trap of humanizing .. it, whatever the excitement and emotions it unleashes.

Posted by: Christian Dirkx
February 17, 2011
5:43 am

I was sure, that watson would win ;-) with Power7

Posted by: Christian Schwarz
February 17, 2011
4:04 am

- Why was this challenge sensationalized?
- Why do you consider the trivial pursuit of memorizing trivia facts to be “a fair measure of human intelligence”?
- Why do you consider automated translation of a short English sentence into a database query “smart”?
- Can Watson question or explain the analogy between life and a box of chocolates?
- Why are you promoting the nonsense of a “Singularity” on ‘A Smarter Planet’ blog?
- Why don’t you understand the growth of exponential functions and its relation to discovery and creativity, and its refutation of a Singularity?
- Why don’t you understand or consider computability and tractability either?
- Is P!=NP? What is the proof?
- Why don’t you understand the concept of ‘universal computation’ and it’s low threshold of attainability and commonplace?
- What does “smarter than we are” mean in light of this?
- Can quantum computers be built, and do Watson’s algorithms take advantage of potential speedups?
- Did you use brain-like ‘neural network’ algorithms at all?
- Why do you think people fear encyclopedic databases like Wikipedia? Is it because a computer algorithm can query it?
- Why is the 50+ year old subject of the ‘Philosophy of AI’ being peddled as something new?
- What fundamentally new algorithms were invented for Watson, if any?
- Why wasn’t the guy controlling Watson’s buzzer-reaction-time variable more subtle?
- Were any questions fixed?
- Was Ken Jennings subjected to an unfair competition of ‘reaction time’ buttom pressing?
- How do you feel about the media blowing the implications of expert systems out of proportion?
- If Watson gives faulty advice in industry, who is liable?

Posted by: Alan Turing
February 17, 2011
12:50 am

Fantastic comments.

Please keep posting your comments and questions. We will be using some of them at the LIVE event “Final Jeopardy and the Future of IBM Watson” event tomorrow 2/17 at 11:30 am ET.

Please tune in at

Thank you,
Kevin Winterfield
Editor, Smarter Planet blog
“Keep the Conversation Going”

Posted by: Kevin Winterfield
February 17, 2011
12:36 am

I think we can learn more about Watson’s success by its failures. An example includes “why does it “mess up” on “or” questions?” Is it because it assigns a really high probability to Answer A and that unduly influences the overall answer?

Successes build confidence; failures build learning. Watson’s engineers can learn so much more from what didn’t work that from what did.

Posted by: Dan O'Dea
February 16, 2011
11:38 pm

If you want to know what the ultimate limits are to this progression of technology, see Prof. Frank J. Tipler’s below paper, which in addition to giving the Feynman-DeWitt-Weinberg quantum gravity/Standard Model Theory of Everything (TOE) correctly describing and unifying all the forces in physics, also demonstrates that the known laws of physics (i.e., the Second Law of Thermodynamics, General Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics) require that the universe end in the Omega Point (the final cosmological singularity and state of infinite informational capacity identified as being God):

F. J. Tipler, “The structure of the world from pure numbers”, Reports on Progress in Physics, Vol. 68, No. 4 (April 2005), pp. 897-964. Also released as “Feynman-Weinberg Quantum Gravity and the Extended Standard Model as a Theory of Everything”, arXiv:0704.3276, April 24, 2007.

Reports on Progress in Physics is the leading journal of the Institute of Physics, Britain’s main professional body for physicists. Further, Reports on Progress in Physics has a higher impact factor (according to Journal Citation Reports) than Physical Review Letters, which is the most prestigious American physics journal.

Tipler is Professor of Physics and Mathematics (joint appointment) at Tulane University. His Ph.D. is in the field of global general relativity (the same rarefied field that Profs. Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking developed), and he is also an expert in particle physics and computer science. His Omega Point cosmology has been peer-reviewed and published in a number of prestigious physics and science journals in addition to Reports on Progress in Physics, such as Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (one of the world’s leading astrophysics journals), Physics Letters, the International Journal of Theoretical Physics, etc.

Posted by: James Redford
February 16, 2011
11:30 pm

Congratulations!!! What a wonderful way to start our centennial year. Thank you to all members of the Watson team … you make us proud!

Posted by: Yu Hirayama
February 16, 2011
9:23 pm

Congratulations to all the players! This is in many ways a milestone towards a Smarter Planet. It is an example of what can be achieved collectively as we take on grand challenges to understand ourselves, the world around us and the intersections that links the two. I hope this is only the beginning of the exciting future we will create.

Posted by: Abdul Islam
February 16, 2011
9:11 pm

“What We Learned about How Watson Thinks”

….except, Watson doesn’t think. Watson doesn’t understand. Watson isn’t even conscious. Don’t get me wrong – this is a technological marvel. But it’s bad science (and outright FALSE) to attribute properties such as understanding, learning, thinking, semantics, etc. to a distrubted computing system. So why do IBM’ers keep doing it?

Posted by: Tony Facciolo
February 16, 2011
9:07 pm

Watson, you just won Jeopardy. What are you going to do next? I am going to the hospital. Can Watson help doctors?

Posted by: Dan
February 16, 2011
8:52 pm

Now IBM needs to move Watson to India with the rest of their helpdesk and we can finally get our trouble tickets routed to the right service teams! Good job to all the Watson programmers. Can we hire some Americans back now? :)

Posted by: wesley atkins
February 16, 2011
8:36 pm

Way to go Team Watson. It would be interesting to see Watson compete in other languages.

Posted by: Jeff
February 16, 2011
8:31 pm

It’s “eminent” domain (see category).

Posted by: Michael K
February 16, 2011
8:22 pm

I’ve got a question about Watson’s programming: How did you decide what books Watson would “read” to prepare for Jeopardy?

Posted by: Jason
February 16, 2011
8:19 pm

Congratulations and thank you to the Watson team! You’ve all made us especially proud to be IBMers!

Posted by: Kimberlee Kemble
February 16, 2011
8:12 pm

Hooray!!! Watson Won! IBM Won!

Posted by: Lily Lii
February 16, 2011
8:05 pm

Let’s get Watson into Health Care ASAP .. It can only help

Posted by: Stan Lovecky
February 16, 2011
7:43 pm

Congratulations to Team Watson!! What an incredible display of what technology can do!

Posted by: Andrew
February 16, 2011
7:36 pm

Great job everyone. What a great company.

Posted by: Barry Graham
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