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April 29, 2009

Alex, I’ll Take Supercomputing for $1000

Michael Feldman

It seems fitting that in the age of reality shows and celebrity adoration, a scientific demonstration of artificial intelligence will take place on a television quiz program. On Monday, IBM announced that it will be pitting its latest and greatest Blue Gene/P supercomputing technology against human contestants on the popular game show, Jeopardy.

According to the company, IBM scientists have developed a system called “Watson” that “will be able to understand complex questions and answer with enough precision and speed to compete on Jeopardy!” Call it the Trivial Pursuit version of the Turing test. Of course, IBM’s goal here is not to go on the game show circuit. The technology behind Watson has general applicability to commercial businesses and governments that are looking to augment human intelligence.

This is all in the research stage, so IBM is not ready to release these systems into the wild just yet. The company didn’t talk much about the nature of the software it’s developing, except to say that it contains a natural language processing technology. In many ways, Watson looks like IBM’s version of Wolfram Alpha, a Web-based computational knowledge engine that is set to debut next month (and which I previewed in March). In both cases, the challenge is to interpret the questions correctly in real time — the part that’s relatively easy for mere mortals.

Here’s IBM describing its new technology:

IBM loves this kind of techno-theater. In 1997, an IBM super called Deep Blue beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov in a six-game match (two wins to one with three draws). That system was one of the most powerful computers of its day, delivering 11.38 gigaflops of Linpack, which earned it the 259th spot on the TOP500 list in June of 1997. That same computing horsepower is now available in a just a single core of a high-end x86 processor.

Ironically, Deep Blue’s 1997 achievement contributed to the demise of chess as a spectator sport, which it achieved in the last quarter of the 20th century with characters like Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky and Kasparov bringing American-Soviet drama into this highly cerebral game. But the fact that a machine could now beat the world champs relegated chess to just a mathematical exercise.

If Watson manages to beat the humans at Jeopardy, it will be interesting to see how it changes our attitudes about big money game shows, not to mention our ultimate trivial pursuit: our rote learning style of education. Now that would be progress.