Thursday, February 17, 2011

My dear Watson, are you for real?

I had some help with today's posting.  My son Avery is a huge 'Watson' fan.  He helped me with picking pictures and posting this entry.  Thanks Avery!!

This is Watson.  The winner of Jeopardy
Did anyone watch the three days of Jeopardy earlier this week?  It took two of the biggest winners in Jeopardy history and pitted them against a computer named ‘Watson’ created by IBM.  The two humans involved were Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.  Ken Jennings holds the title of most consecutive wins on Jeopardy.  In 2004 he won seventy four uninterrupted games of Jeopardy.  He won over 3.1 million dollars on Jeopardy not to mention another 300,000 dollars this week for coming in second place.  Brad Rutter holds the title for winning the most money on Jeopardy with over 3.2 million dollars (not to mention cars and other items) as well as winning 200,000 dollars this week for coming in third place.  These two champions have what it takes to win.  They have the intelligence to answer the questions correctly and the ability to play the game, not to mention nerves of steel.  So what about our third contestant and three day winner?  Watson is a computer that has the ability to understand the human language and answer questions asked of it.  It’s an artificial intelligence program that has very sophisticated algorithms to help it get to the correct answer.  An algorithm is like the computer’s thought process.  It is developed by the people who created Watson over at IBM.

Watson's body
It seems like the computer was just too much for our two human champions.  Although there were times that it came out with the wrong answer or would wager odd amounts in the daily double and final Jeopardy, overall it seemed to perform better than its human counterparts, at least on answering these sets of questions.  The three days were enjoyable to watch though.   Although the score seemed like a blowout, there were times when the humans were giving the computer a run for its money.  For instance at the end of day one, Brad was tied with Watson.  Then, during day three Ken was beating Watson for a while.   However, here is one huge advantage that Watson had, he didn’t get frustrated.  If it got beat to the buzzer five times in a row it would still have the same chance at getting question number six correct as it did before.  Brad and Ken were sometimes visibly frustrated when Watson would go on a question winning streak.  They would have to regain their composure, which they always did, to move on.  Watson never had composure to lose or regain.

Another picture of Watson's body
The creators of Watson did give him some personality.   The physical ‘Watson’ was made up of two basic parts, the computer and the representation of that computer.  The computer itself was huge and stored back stage, but his representation was an Avatar, as represented in the image above.  It looked like it had a head, and you could see when he was thinking and when he was frustrated or upset that he got a question wrong by watching the colors of the avatar change.  Of course he was never truly upset or frustrated or happy for that matter.   The creators just programmed that humanity in him so we would enjoy the show more.  So it boils down like this, we the audience saw a ‘human’ side of Watson with his changing colors, voice and perceived emotion.  Ken and Brad saw the ‘inhuman’ side of Watson with his ruthless ability and speed to answer questions over and over again, like the machine was designed to do.

Thinking Watson
Happy Watson
Overall it was a very enjoyable three days of Jeopardy.  I’m not a regular watcher because it seems like there is always something else going on, but we did make time for these days and we are glad we did.  It got me thinking though.   How far off is artificial intelligence from having a major role in human affairs?  Will the computers be tricky like ‘Hal’ from 2001 a space odyssey or ruthless like the robots from the Terminator movies?  Is this sci-fi coming to life or life becoming sci-fi?  Only time will tell.


  1. I'm excited for the advances being made in technology but it's scary to see how science fiction horror movies seem to be coming true. Is Hal really that far off? What is keeping the creators in check?
    I heard of a guy (if anyone knows who I'm thinking of please let me know) who is trying to make a small robotic like ship to go into a body with cancer and release the chemo to the tumor only. This way the chemo poison only kills the tumor and not the healthy cells. That is what I call an amazing & oh so needed advancement.
    Watson was very cool but let's hope his offspring are here to help us & don't aspire to take over. Sound a little paranoid?

  2. I think it would be nice to have a Watson-like therapist, no judgement, no personal experience to mar the perception of the patient's needs and no yawning when one has gone on and on and get the idea. Some folks would get more compassion from a Watson type AI system than others are getting from real human beings, like Scott Walker, evil governor of WI trying to take collective bargaining away from everyday folks who keep his state running, serve the sick and disabled, run the schools and provide services many people would never consider doing because of the "ick" factor. Oops, how did this turn into a political diatribe??? See, were I more Watson-like, you wouldn't have to worry about responses like this =-)

  3. I like the watson therapist idea...having a degree in psychology, it intrigues me...however, I think we need that emotional factor in order to help heal or move forward in therapy. As for the mini robot injecting only cancer cells...WHAT A CONCEPT! Let's hope that's not too far down the road...I did get to watch Watson and the individuals that designed "him" are definitely geniuses...I can't even begin to fathom how, when or where the whole robotic possibilities can take us. As usual, love what you have to say.

  4. Great Points!! You are all so right and it's good to hear about people's views on computers and their role in our future. As far as getting political, that's fine. This blog is for voicing your opinion.

    Dana - Great point about technologies increasing role in fighting cancer.

    Anonymous (I know who you are) - Sometimes it would be refreshing to not have to deal with judgments.

    Maggi - I agree we as humans need the emotion. It's how we gauge a lot of our lives.
    I work in computers and software development and can barely fathom how much work and time goes into a project like Watson. Thanks for pointing out these creators geniuses!!