From Jeopardy! Winner to Doctor: IBM's Watson

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Continuing in our series on the history of robotics and bringing the story into the present, we turn our focus on IBM’s Watson. Watson may be the most famous computer in real life, not only from his success on the game show Jeopardy!, but for his continued work and application in medicine, business, and many other fields.

Several years after IBM proved with Deep Blue that a computer can comprehend the complexities of chess, the company approved research to see if a computer could be built to win Jeopardy! It wasn’t any small challenge either; first and foremost, a computer would have to possess advanced language processing technology to even keep up with the trivia game. Second, it would have to be loaded with as much encyclopedic data as possible. So the Watson team set forth to tackle those problems exactly.


What IBM accomplished in Watson was truly extraordinary: they made a computer that thought like a human. Watson receives the input question, splits it apart, rakes through storehouses of information, and comes up with an educated guess. It’s not just about keywords, either; this computer can parse very complicated questions. He even tells you how confident he is about his answer. Watson relies on natural language processing and the biggest of big data to answer queries. During his Jeopardy! run, Watson could consult roughly four terabytes of content from dictionaries, encyclopedias, databases, and more in milliseconds (he did not have access to the web during the game). The greater challenge was accurately decoding the Jeopardy! clues. These are notoriously loaded with puns and wordplay which added another layer of complexity.

IBM approached Jeopardy! producers in 2008 with the challenge, but it took them three years to iron out details and specifications. The producers raised objections to Watson’s advantage of speed to buzz in an answer, and IBM was worried that the show’s writers would create intentionally difficult clues to answer as a kind of Turing test. Finally, in January 2011, Watson was pitted against human champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter and came out victorious by a wide margin.

But winning Jeopardy! was far from the end for Watson. IBM saw the potential for what they had created and set about tackling bigger challenges. In a short time, Watson has shrunk in size (about the size of three pizza boxes now) and been multiplied. One version is using its processing power and access to information to suggest medical treatments to doctors. IBM actually opened up Watson’s API to developers to encourage app developers to build around Watson’s capabilities. Just last year, an entire division was created to bring Watson’s processing power to the world.

IBM doesn’t hold a monopoly on technological advancement, and there are numerous examples of advanced programming and robotics that will change our future. However, Watson does show us how many small steps can take us farther than we thought possible.

This is the fourth part of a series on the history of computer robotics. Read the first, second, and third parts.

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Katie Behrens

Client Service Representative, Arts People

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