RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – The apocalypse is upon us. Just as “Terminator Salvation” with John Connor battling Skynet and its robotic army is set to hit movie screens, IBM is announcing plans today to match one of its supercomputers against human champions on “Jeopardy!”
Codenamed “Watson” after IBM founder Thomas Watson, the machine has been under development for two years. Watson won’t be connected to the Internet, so it gets no assistance from Google. It’s man versus machine. The operating system includes plenty of memory, processing power and what IBM scientists call a “highly advanced Question Answering (QA) system” with an emphasis on understanding semantics.
So, will "Governator" Arnold Schwarzenegger stand beside Mr. Cool Alex Trebek as co-host (and guardian) in the latest high-profile man vs. machine showdown? How about Batman megastar Christain Bale reprising his new John Connor/Terminator role on the Jeopardy set?
Now that’s entertainment.
But the big star, like it or not, will be Watson (). Are advances in computing making the final strides toward self-awareness as the original Terminator predicted with Skynet? (And before that, for you old-timers, Colossus?)
If you enjoyed (or were threatened by) IBM supercomputer Deep Blue’s chess matches against world champion Gary Kasparov, then brace yourself for the Jeopardy event.
What a challenge the Big Blue machine faces. In chess, there are only so-many thousand moves in a defined playing space. In Jeopardy, the questions are limitless. The puns, innuendos, slang and warped human humor make the challenge even more difficult for an artificial intelligence.
Imagine Trebek/Schwarzenegger/Bale posing answers in various categories to the humans on the panel and a rack of servers cloaked in a Big Blue logo with an avatar on a high-definition monitor and synthesized voice booming over Bose speakers.
Imagine how many humans will feel if Watson wins. Skynet is almost here.
The New York Times’ John Marhoff described the next big human-machine showdown this way:
“This highly successful television quiz show is the latest challenge for artificial intelligence."
“What is ‘Jeopardy’?”
“That is correct.”
IBM calls the Jeopardy showdown event a “scientific grand challenge” that will “demonstrate” its machine’s “ability to determine precise answers to complex questions at record speeds.”
Dr. David Ferrucci, the Watson team lead, described the Watson operating system, or brain, this way:
"The challenge is to build a system that, unlike systems before it, can rival the human mind’s ability to determine precise answers to natural language questions and to compute accurate confidences in the answers. This confidence processing ability is key. It greatly distinguishes the IBM approach from conventional search, and is critical to implementing useful business applications of Question Answering."
Watson incorporates what IBM calls “massively parallel analytical capabilities,” and the company believes the research poured into Watson will “elevate computer intelligence and human-to-computer communication to unprecedented levels. IBM intends to apply the unique technological capabilities being developed for Watson to help clients across a wide variety of industries answer business questions quickly and accurately.”
Now that’s true business intelligence.
However, Ferrucci told The Times that Watson is not a finished product.
“The big goal is to get computers to be able to converse in human terms,” he said. “And we’re not there yet.”
Is that the good news? You decide.
And if Watson loses? Well, expect it to say "I’ll be back" – just like Arnold.