This week will be remembered as another semi-mythical turning point in the historical battle of man vs. machine. Although John Henry, the strong man who beat the steam drill, won his contest, the hand laying of railroad track was soon to come to an end.
The humans who battled the machine this week failed in their attempt to overcome. They probably lost, not for lack of knowledge, but for lack of speed. Have you figured it out yet?
The IBM computing system, named Watson, went head to head with Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter this week on Jeopardy.
This computer is really a room full of servers- about as many as would fit in ten refrigerators. It was designed and programmed by a large group of people over the course of four years. So... man vs. computer has happened before, particularly in games like chess. What is different about this contest?
This computer uses a process more like true thought than the "brute force" method of determining the right answer. In brute force the computer simply calculates every possibility, and then chooses the one with the best outcome. Watson, however, operates in a completely different manner. If you watch Jeopardy you will know that every clue has at least two hints in it. First you have the category, then the clue itself. Very often the clue has two parts, or even a not-so-subtle hint in it (that is often a play on word meanings, if not an outright pun). The person who can correctly put all the clues together and fixate on the one question that fits all the parts of the answer, quickly, will get that question right.
Watson read each clue, took each word, assigned a weight to the meaning (like throwing out "the") and compared lists of related words until it got a match between lists. It then assigned a probability of the selection being right, by comparing it with the total clue. If the probability of being correct was above 50% then Watson would ring in. We could see Watson's three top choices for each clue and its probabilities (note bar graph at bottom of above picture).
This picture is the final scores of the two-game contest. Watson trounced Brad (all-time highest earnings on Jeopardy) and Ken (longest run of winning games on Jeopardy). Everyone seems to agree that this was primarily because Watson's reaction time to ring in was 1/100 of a second, not because it was actually smarter than the humans.
There were some very funny moments- maybe I'll tell more tomorrow, especially if this obnoxious thaw keeps ruining my nice snow.
But the truly historic part is that, like John Henry, Watson has been introduced in a manner that is not likely to be forgotten by everyday people. This is not just a gimmick. The computer is already being programmed to aid in medical diagnoses- not to take over a doctor's job, but as a way to look at more possibilities than one doctor can consider in a reasonable time frame.
Like the steam drill, computers like Watson are here to stay.
|See John Henry of the 21st Century - Part 1|