IBM's Watson Win Poses Questions on What Is Next

The much-anticipated "Jeopardy" tournament may be over, but IBM plans to make sure the world keeps hearing about Watson as it rolls out new systems based on the supercomputer.

The man versus machine "Jeopardy" battle between IBM supercomputer Watson and two former "Jeopardy" champions may be over, but as far as IBM is concerned, there is more work left to be done.

While Watson handily defeated its human opponents during the two-game tournament that aired between Feb. 14 and Feb. 16, the real story is not about a computer smart enough to compete, and win, on a challenging game show, but rather, the advent of computers capable of understanding questions and coming up with relevant answers. This is "just the beginning of a journey," Katharine Frase, vice president of industry solutions and emerging business at IBM Research, told eWEEK.

IBM didn't waste any time, announcing on Feb. 17 a collaboration with Columbia University, the University of Maryland and Nuance Communications to develop a physicians' assistant service that can collect a patient's health information and analyze it for medical diagnosis. Other health care applications include being able to automatically identify and flag anomalies on MRIs and other images that a radiologist may miss. The speech-recognition technology from Nuance will also help Watson hear people, a skill it could have used during the first game.

Health care isn't the only place IBM sees potential Watson applications. The options are nearly endless, such as government, financial services, retail and education. Risk management is another area where Watson's ability to analyze and correlate large volumes of data would be handy, or in social services, to replace systems struggling with data volumes.

Watson's "Jeopardy" run may also have spurred some interest in IBM's other projects. The day after the tournament ended, IBM's World Community Grid had a 700 percent spike in the number of new registrations, IBM said. Volunteers donate unused computing power from their personal computers to the grid to create one of the world's largest virtual supercomputers, IBM said. The combined pool of available computational power is available to scientists to use in research. For example, the Scripps Research Institute used the World Community Grid to further its AIDS research, according to IBM.
"Watson's performance on 'Jeopardy' has captured the imagination of millions of viewers who understand the power of computing to benefit humanity," said Stanley Litow, IBM vice president of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs, and president of IBM's Foundation.

What was perhaps unexpected was some of the questions viewers asked after watching Watson in action. For example, more people now know about Toronto, Calif., right near Los Angeles, or other Torontos scattered around the country than they did before Feb. 15. Apparently, there are some places in the country where it's true that Toronto is a US city. There was a lot of debate as to whether Watson had an unfair advantage over the humans with its buzzer speed. David Ferrucci, the lead investigator to the Watson project, and other IBM executives have repeatedly said that Watson is fast, but not unbeatable. And while humans can go ahead and buzz in before even knowing the answer, Watson can't buzz in until it has selected a likely answer. In fact, there was a clue during the second game when Watson was still analyzing and deciding its answers when Jennings buzzed in.

Humans can anticipate an event, and good "Jeopardy" players anticipate the moment they are allowed to buzz in to try to get in within milliseconds of that, Ferrucci has said. Watson can't anticipate; it clicks only when it's allowed to, he said. As viewers saw in the second match, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter beat Watson to the buzzer several times.

Rutter told eWEEK that whenever he buzzes in ahead of Watson, he gets a rush, "Woo! I beat Watson!"

There were even some concerns amongst viewers on Twitter that Watson might have infringed on copyrights. Researchers scanned 200 million pages of content, or the equivalent of 1 million books, into Watson, including books, movie scripts and entire encyclopedias. Digitally scanning or storing books is generally considered a copyright infringement if the person hasn't gotten permission to. The question is moot in Watson's case, since IBM chose to obey licensing rules. "If we don't have a license, we don't have it," Jennifer Chu-Carroll, an IBM researcher on the Watson project, told InfoWorld.

Even so, the argument goes, if it's OK for a person to remember what he or she read and use it on "Jeopardy," it should be OK for Watson to do the same. With more Watson systems planned for the future, copyright will likely rear its head again.

After watching Watson in action and hearing about all the ways Watson can revolutionize health care, tech support and business analytics, it seems inevitable that people are wondering, Has IBM created a computer that can think? Ferrucci dismisses the question, asking, "Does a submarine swim?" Watson is a powerful computer that can store a lot of data and runs algorithms that correlate data, understand context and find answers, he said. There's no one algorithm that can replicate human thinking, he told eWEEK at an IBM viewing party on the final night of the tournament.

As a final note, it shouldn't be a surprise that Watson won the $1 million prize. Bookmaker had said in January the computer was the odds-on favorite to beat Jennings and Rutter.