Monday, 4 May 2009

IBM in Jeopardy

It all started with Big Blue, the IBM chess computer that played and disputedly beat chess grand master Gary Kasparov, but now, those fun-loving people at IBM are planning to play Jeopardy against real people, possibly including 74-times champion Ken Jennings.

For non-US-based readers, Jeopardy is a trivia quiz requiring a knowledge of history, literature, the arts, pop culture, and science (thanks again Wikipedia). What makes Jeopardy different from standard question-and-answer quizzes is that contestants are presented with clues in the form of answers, and must phrase their responses in the form of a question! Jeopardy was launched in 1964, and the current version of the TV show has been going since 1984.

The IBM computer is going to be called Watson, after the founder of IBM. What makes this challenge greater than playing chess is that the computer will need to understand human questions and respond to them correctly. IBM's John Kelly, Senior VP and Director of Research said, “What we're doing is creating a system that will be able to applied to all sorts of applications in the world, and essentially cut the time to find answers to very difficult problems”. As the New York Times says, “The software must interact with humans on their own terms, and fast”. David A Ferrucci, an IBM. artificial intelligence researcher, said, “The big goal is to get computers to be able to converse in human terms. And we’re not there yet.”

Now, you’re probably thinking that the biggest problem will be recognizing human speech. After all, we’ve all tried Dragon Dictate and similar software and found it’s best guess at the words we’ve used to be sometimes very wide of the mark. Well, the IBMers have thought of that and they have a solution – the questions will be presented as electronic text. However, the computer will answer using a synthesized voice.

To make the competition fairer, Watson won’t be hooked up to the Internet so it can look up any answers, it will have it’s own internal database of knowledge. Yes, that definitely sounds fairer to me!!

Also according to the New York Times, “the system must be able to deal with analogies, puns, double entendres, and relationships like size and location, all at lightning speed”.

It does seem like a more fascinating challenge than simply asking a computer to look up an answer in its database. The question I keep asking myself is whether I want a computer that’s able to converse in human terms. Sorry C-3PO, give me R2-D2. At least you know where you are then.

And good luck to any humans who take on Watson at Jeopardy. You can always complain it wasn’t fair if you lose – like Kasparov did and demand a rematch.

2 comments:

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