The story of man against machine is nothing new nor is the fact that a computer can out pace a human in a game of questions and answers. So why all the current hoopla over the IBM’s Watson beating out two of Jeopardy’s top winning contestants such a big deal? For some it was simply a foregone conclusion that the computer would win as opposed to the thousands of news stories that seem to think the outcome was somehow a surprising and monumental event.
Big Think is an online knowledge forum called IBM’s Watson “not so impressive” while Memesteading posed the question as to whether the computer was just over provisioned “big iron”. After all the big behemoth does somewhat resemble early computers of the 50s that took an entire room to house. Add to that the fact that Watson consists of 10 racks of 9 servers each, 2880 computing cores and 15 terabytes of high-speed RAM main-memory, is it really any surprise that it won out over a mere human brain?
According to Memesteading:
While Jeopardy questions are challenging and wide-ranging, in highly idiomatic (even whimsical) English, this trivia game remains a very constrained domain. The clues are short; the answers just a few words, at most, and usually discrete named entities – the kinds of things that have their own titled entries in encyclopedias, dictionaries, and gazetters/almanacs of various sorts.
While the clues often have wordplay, many also have signifiers that clearly indicate exactly what kind of word/phrase completion is expected. (The strongest is perhaps the word ‘this’, as in “this protein” or “‘Storm on the Sea of’ this”. But categories which promise a certain word or phrase will be in the answer, with that portion in quotes, also help brute-force search plenty.)
I strongly suspect that almost anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of language, and enough time to research clues in an offline static copy of Wikipedia, could get 90%+ of the clues right.
Essentially Watson could be compared to a giant search engine (with some analytical abilities thrown in) that comes up with exactly the same answers we would come up with if we were “Googling”, only a lot faster.
Watson does have more practical and useful future beyond its stint as game show contestant though. According to CrunchGear:
The idea is to create something “for the diagnosis and treatment of patients that provide hospitals, physicians, and payers access to critical and timely information.”
How about this scenario: a patient is rushed to a hospital with an unidentified illness. A loved one explains to Dr. Watson the symptoms, and the good doctor searches terabytes of information in a split-second to narrow down the possible ailments, along with possible courses of action. “This patient would appear to have X, please prepare a drip of Y to begin treatment.”
Should we be in awe at the feat of 15 terabytes of memory coming up with answers faster than a single human brain? Probably not. Should we appreciate Watson for what it is and for what it may mean for the future? Absolutely.