Thursday, February 17, 2011

Watson, come quick! I need you!

I have just witnessed what is either an enormous advance in medicine, a colossal waste of electricity or the greatest free publicity campaign ever.

And it all took place in under an hour.

I'm referring to the recent Jeopardy match that pitted "Watson," a computer consisting of ten IBM Power 750 servers and cooled by two large refrigerator units, against two past human champions, who sweated profusely under television lights and looked like they would have trouble answering the first question on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.

After four years of research by a crack team of IBM geeks, the "very special event," as Jeopardy host Alex Trebek called it, took place at The Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. The phrase, "very special event" should have been my first warning that this was going to be a disappointment. Anybody who has ever heard a sitcom episode promoted with that phrase knows that it involves the show's goofiest character catching a deadly disease but miraculously recovering in 22 minutes.

I tuned in out of curiosity, and because I had recently performed stand-up comedy for the IBM Power Server division. I found the employees to be typical IBMers —hard working and very passionate about what they do. IBMers are extremely dedicated even if they are perfecting, according to a recent ad I saw during a football game, a system that allows carrots to tell truck drivers how fresh they are. In a country where the unemployment rate hovers close to double digits, I'm not sure talking carrots is what we need right now.

Nor was I sure that proving a computer was smarter than Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter was a big deal either. A few years ago IBM proved that a computer named Big Blue could whup chess Grand Master Gary Kasparov but nobody, save maybe Kasparov, seemed effected by that. Would Watson's knowledge of anagrams, Italian Renaissance Architecture, or Famous 18th-century Poets alter history? I was about to find out.

Prior to the match, Trebek re-introduced us to the show's most famous contestants. Jennings, a mild-mannered Seattle family guy won 74 straight games and $2.5 million in the process. Rutter racked up $3.2 million, winning not nearly as many games as Jennings but triumphing in three Jeopardy tournaments. Rutter has since moved to Los Angeles and is trying to make it as actor, something that is much easier when you have $3 million in the bank. That will buy a lot of headshots.

Then we met Watson or, as Trebek pointed out, an avatar of Watson since it was impossible to squeeze ten IBM servers behind a lectern. Together, those servers formed a "deep analytic system that is the equivalent of 2,800 powerful computers tied together in a super high speed network" with a memory capacity of over 15 trillion bytes.


Flashing lights and colored lines danced around the circular-shaped Avatar, giving Watson the appearance of either a ball of twine or air traffic patterns at Los Angeles International Airport. Then Watson actually spoke and explained he was a "deep question answering system." A sunny-voiced female narrator interrupted, saying that the circle was an IBM smarter planet icon and the lines were actually "thought rays" that change color and speed depending on what is happening during a game. When Watson felt confident about an answer, the rays turned green. They turned orange should Watson get an answer wrong, something Jennings and Rutter could only hope for.

The rays moved faster when Watson was working hard to answer a clue. It was, the narrator said with great drama, "the equivalent of watching a computer sweat."

Finally, she explained the answer panel. While Jennings and Rutter would struggle to come up with one answer, know-it-all Watson could search every piece of information fed into it since the Paleozoic era, and narrow it down to a possible three. The choices would be displayed on the panel, along with a percentage representing a "buzz threshold." Where in the world IBM came up with phrases such as "buzz threshold," I will never know. I'll ask Watson should I ever meet it.

Watson, by the way, is neither male or female. Its creators always refer to it as "it."

The narrator ended her explanation by stating the buzz threshold meant Watson "knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn't know."


Now it was time to play Jeopardy. Rutter chose the first answer, Alternate Meanings for $200.

"Four letter word for a vantage point or a belief," said Trebek.

"What is a view?" replied Rutter correctly.

The next answer came from the same category: A four-letter word for the iron fitting on the hoof of a horse or a card-dealing box in a casino."

"What is a shoe?" I yelled from the couch.

"What is a shoe? " said Watson, although its computer animated voice said "shoe" very softly, leading me to believe it was extremely nervous.

I glanced at the rays for signs of sweat but they seemed to be moving normally.

Now Watson controlled the board. What do you know? Watson, on its very first choice, uncovered the Daily Double! Watson wagered $1,000, the maximum allowed. The thought rays danced while Trebek read the answer from Literary Characters APB: "Wanted for killing Sir Danier' Carew: Appearance - pale and dwarfish, seems to have a split personality."

"Who is Sybil?" I yelled.

Watson was not stumped. "What is Hyde?"

"Correct," replied Trebek. The camera cut to a studio audience shot of smug looking suits, smiling and nodding in agreement. I assumed they were IBMers who had something to do with Watson's abilities. Jennings meanwhile looked like he would rather be back in Seattle, undergoing a root canal.

just a few minutes into the game, Watson had $3,200; Rutter and Jennings languished behind with $200 each.

A normal game — consisting of Jeopardy, Double Jeopardy and Final Jeopardy—takes 30 minutes counting commercials. However, the Watson game took two days so IBMers could interrupt and explain their creation more thoroughly. These employees have a few things in common: all are referred to as "doctor" and all have job titles that would probably never appear on a board. Just ask Dr. David Gondek, head of Watson Game Strategy for IBM Research.

Dr. David Ferrucci, Watson Principal Investigator, got the most screen time. "What we've done has the potential to advance science in ways you've never imagined," he proudly stated.

Perhaps but right now it looked like Watson's main intent was to humiliate humans. I found myself rooting for it to make a mistake or, even better, crash! That would prompt a phone call to technical support and force Trebek to ad-lib for three hours as IBM executives waited on hold while the call was re-routed to India.

Watson's first hiccup came mid-way through the first round after choosing Final Frontiers for $400.

"From the Latin for 'end,' this is where trains can also originate," said Trebek.

"What is finis?" said Watson.

"Nooooo," replied Trebek in the condescending tone that he has mastered over 30 years. The camera did not pan to the IBMers in the audience, who were no doubt arguing over who would receive a pink slip the next morning.

"What is a terminus?" corrected Jennings.

We also learned that Watson is not a great listener. After Jennings incorrectly answered, "The 1920s" to a question, Watson rang in and gave the same answer.

"Nooooo. Ken said that," replied Trebek.

By the end of the first round, Rutter was actually tied with Watson, which is like the Washington Generals leading the Harlem Globetrotters by double digits. Jennings was huffing and puffing in third place with $2,000.

The next day it was time for Double Jeopardy and it was here that Watson exerted its superiority. Perhaps the IBM team snuck into the studio in the middle of the night and fed it another trillion bytes of information. Something definitely happened because Watson was unstoppable. It rattled off six straight answers; it uncovered and correctly answered BOTH Daily Doubles. It got the crowd laughing by wagering the strange amount of $6,435. It even began one response by saying, "I'll take a guess."

Who at IBM programmed Watson to say, "I'll take a guess?"

The IBM team eventually explained what Watson was really capable of, particularly in the healthcare field. Watson could help medical professionals extract information to support a hypothesis. In seconds, it would tell doctors the best treatments and outcomes for a patient.

But first Watson had to get past Final Jeopardy. The category was U.S. Cities. However, by this time Watson's lead was insurmountable: $36,681 compared to $5,400 for Rutter and $2,400 for Jennings. As long as Watson was not greedy or incredibly stupid at math, victory would be it's.

"It's largest airport is named for a World War II hero; it's second largest for a World War II battle," read Trebek.

Even I knew this one, perhaps because I live less than an hour from both. "What is Chicago?" I yelled.

Jennings and Rutter knew it too and both doubled their meager scores. Then it was Watson's turn.

"What is Toronto???"

Not only did Watson fail to realize that Toronto is not a U.S. city, but it even wrote numerous question marks after its response, suggesting that it had many doubts. The crowd groaned.

Thankfully Watson only wagered $947, assuring itself of victory. IBM employees and stockholders rejoiced simultaneously.

The three contestants played a second game the following day, this one void of IBM infomercials and explanations of Watson's inner workings. While Jennings and Rutter performed admirably, Watson still came out on top, even answering the Final Jeopardy question correctly.

Now it's time for Watson's victory tour to begin. It is off to Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine to determine whether it can in fact, correctly diagnose a patient. I'm 48, in reasonably good health and hopefully won't need Watson's skills for quite awhile. When I am wheeled into the ER, I'm confident that Watson will improve my chances of survival.

As long as it doesn't say "I'll take a guess."

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