IBM to show off its accomplishments in artificial intelligence when it takes on Jeopardy! superstars in February.
The battle of the decade is about to unfold between man and machine this February as IBM's POWER7-based Watson supercomputer goes head-to-head against game show Jeopardy!'s top-earning contestants Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.
The three-day contest, which will begin airing February 14 (Valentine's Day), has been four years in the making. IBM engineers are confident about the prototype computer named Watson (after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson) handling linguistic challenges to understand natural language questions. However, experts predict the contest between Jennings, Rutter, and Watson may be close. Jennings won 74 games in 2004–2005, setting the record for the most games played consecutively. Rutter won $3.26 million, the highest total ever won by a single player.
Computers using artificial intelligence have traditionally had trouble differentiating between the meanings of words because meanings depend so much on context. As IBM researcher Dave Ferrucci said recently during an interview with Bloomberg News, "You could use 'bad' to mean 'bad,' you could use 'bad' meaning 'good,' you could mean 'bad' to mean 'cool,' but there's an intended meaning," he said. "Language is ambiguous, it's contextual, it's tacit," Ferrucci said. The computer already has shown in earlier tests that it is far from infallible. The technology needed to handle the Jeopardy! challenge was developed by a team of 20 IBM scientists, including software engineers and computational linguists. During the course of the development project, Watson reportedly was asked to name the Eighth Wonder of the world. Its answer, in which it indicated it was highly confident, was…King Kong! The movie ape's name emerged from a description of the film fed into Watson's database, but the machine was unable to deduce that King Kong was fictional.
There may be more at stake in the Jeopardy! Face-off than one would at first surmise. Think of Sputnik and the aftermath when the U.S. put a man on the moon. The world was in awe of American technology. A win for Watson could do wonders for IBM and American know-how at a time when the latter sorely needs a boost in the eyes of the world.
However, even if Watson loses, the computer probably won't be annihilated. If it presents a respectable showing against Jennings and Rutter, it will have more or less proved the point that artificial intelligence is reaching a level where computers can understand questions from humans and respond appropriately. And if Watson wins…well, IBM's stock price could go up the next morning. Many of us remember the 1970s when the original Star Trek aired and the idea of a crew member talking to a computer and receiving an intelligent answer—not to mention a selected drink—was amusing but rather far-fetched. Well, it seems those of us alive today may have the privilege of living in the era of Star Trek after all. For a small boy dreaming of space flight, it's almost like his adult astronaut's dreams are now coming true aboard the space shuttle. One can't help but think of the first flights of unmanned and manned spacecraft as we consider computers achieving the ability to understand and respond in human languages. For the record, Watson speaks only English today, but translations are in the works.
The three-day Jeopardy! contest will be hosted by Alex Trebek and comprised of the usual three contestants, including Watson. It will be broadcast from IBM's laboratory in Yorktown Heights, New York, and will air during the regular Jeopardy! time slot. In a slight concession to Watson, the questions will be typed in as well as spoken. If Watson is confident enough in its answer, it will sound the buzzer to offer its solution publicly.
Winner of the contest will receive $1 million, and if Watson prevails, IBM will donate the money to charity. If either Jennings or Rutter wins, each has agreed to donate half their winnings to charity.
Though IBM may give away a million dollars, make no mistake about the company's plans to commercialize the computer's capabilities and leverage any publicity it receives from the contest. The Watson computer already has started to generate interest from businesses, particularly in the areas of customer support and healthcare, according to the company. IBM is building prototypes for specific applications, including healthcare, but it's expected to be at least three years before the solution is ready for prime time.
Make no mistake that the Jeopardy! show will capture the imagination of people around the world. The difference between having to type in keywords versus speaking them in natural language will be profound. Imagine talking to your iPad and having it talk back to you with new information that you can actually use. People are getting a taste of this already in their satellite-driven GPS navigators. But if you think typing keywords into Google has changed your life, you haven't seen anything compared to being able to easily converse with a computer orally. Natural-language artificial intelligence will take us to whole new planet. Forget about ever getting a human again on a customer service call!
One advance that has made the Watson computer possible is the POWER7 processor. It will be a POWER7 server that goes up against Jeopardy! experts Jennings and Rutter. The POWER7 has taken IBM processing technology to new heights. And Ferrucci and his team believe they are on the threshold of taking IBM artificial intelligence to a new launch point as well. The team very well may go down in history along with the Deep Blue supercomputer, which in 1997 defeated world chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. It will be 14 years since that momentous day when yet another powerful IBM computer faces off against the best we humans have to offer.
The match also will bring to light the accomplishments of IBM in a number of fields that are the result of a huge investment the company has made in research and development. Later this month, IBM CEO Sam Palmisano and 15 senior vice presidents will gather in Armonk, New York, to brainstorm next year's technology trends. The top-level team will outline the company's strategy for 2011 at the company's annual Global Technology Outlook meeting to decide which projects get funded and which companies IBM will seek to purchase next year.
In addition to 15 acquisitions in 2010, IBM invested 6.1 percent of revenue, or $5.8 billion, in research and development. That percentage is likely to stay about the same for 2011 since it has been relatively constant for the past eight years, growing in terms of dollars as revenues increase. Between now and 2015, the company also intends to spend about $20 billion on additional acquisitions.
In contrast, HP spent about $3 billion or 2.4 percent of revenue on R&D last year, but that is about to change. HP's new CEO Leo Apotheker has announced plans to increase R&D over what his predecessor spent.
Meanwhile, IBM, it would seem, is gearing up to be "acquisition ready" and appears to be building up its war chest. It just sold $1 billion in 18-month floating-rate notes this month after raising an additional $1 billion through the sale of five-year notes earlier in December. That can be added to the $11 billion in ammunition the company had on hand as of the end of the third quarter in the form of cash and short-term investments.
While spending money can be bad, buying profitable companies can be good. Palmisano has announced that he wants IBM to double its per-share operating earnings over the next few years; thus the investments in analytics, cloud computing, storage, and other technologies.
Next year promises to be an exciting one in the technology arena, and IBM clearly intends to remain on the leading edge of enterprise computing for the foreseeable future. The fact that HP and Oracle are also making great strides will give users an opportunity to exercise choice in the marketplace when considering solutions and should have the effect of keeping the leading technology providers on their toes—and possibly in front of television audiences as well. In which reality show do we expect HP, Oracle, and Dell to appear? Tune in next year for a possible sequel to Jeopardy!