It wasn't that long ago when chess master Garry Kasparov took on--and was defeated by--IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer.
Nearly 14 years after that match-up, another man-vs.-machine competition is being staged, and this one will be hosted on the long-running American television game show "Jeopardy!" In a series of shows that will air Feb. 14-16, two of Jeopardy!'s most successful players will test their knowledge against a cluster of IBM Power 750 machines running IBM DeepQA software, dubbed "Watson."
A group of us recently met with IBM's marketing team to get more information about Watson and to discuss the technology behind it. They were quick to praise the efforts of the scientists at IBM Research, under the direction of Dave Ferrucci, as being the brains behind Watson.
They wouldn't confirm the number of machines that make up the cluster (saying only it was between one and 100 servers), but they told us that Watson runs IBM DeepQA software on Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 11 that has been compiled for Power. The Power 750 servers, which have been configured with 32 cores and either 256 GB or 128 GB memory each, are connected together over a 10 Gb Ethernet network. Watson connects with 2 TB of clustered storage for a total of 4 TB.
I'm interested in solid-state disks, so I had to ask if Watson used SSD to speed up access to the data. I was told that it uses SAS drives and that disk performance isn't an issue since, once booted, the entire application and data resides in main memory. Watson receives questions in text form at the same time that human contestants have the questions read to them. Watson physically presses the buzzer and uses a voice synthesizer to "speak" the answers. The machine isn't connected to the Internet; it relies only on its memory for answers.
As you might imagine, IBM has built a significant Web presence to promote Watson and the DeepQA Project (see this introduction, this slideshow, these press releases and this Twitter feed). There's also this background about Watson's road to "Jeopardy!":
"An IBM executive had proposed that Watson compete on 'Jeopardy!', but the suggestion was initially dismissed. While search engines such as Microsoft's Bing and Google are able to provide search results based on search terms provided, no computer program had been able to answer anything other than the most straightforward of questions, such as 'What is the capital of Russia?' In competitions run by the United States government, Watson's predecessors were able to answer no more than 70 percent of questions correctly and often took several minutes to come up with an answer. To compete successfully on 'Jeopardy!', Watson would need to come up with answers in no more than a few seconds, and the problems posed by the challenge of competing on the game show were initially deemed to be impossible to develop.
"In initial tests run in 2006 by David Ferrucci, the senior manager of IBM's Semantic Analysis and Integration department, Watson was given 500 clues from past 'Jeopardy!' programs. While the top real-life competitors buzzed in half the time and answered as much as 95 percent of questions correctly, Watson's first pass could only get about 15 percent right. In 2007, the IBM team was given three to five years and a staff of 15 people to develop a solution to the problems posed. ...
"By 2008, the developers had advanced to the point where Watson could compete with low-level 'Jeopardy!' champions. That year, IBM contacted 'Jeopardy!' executive producer Harry Friedman about the possibility of having Watson compete as a contestant on the show. The show's producers readily agreed. ..."
Finally, there's this video, from which I'll quote:
"We were mainly interested in using 'Jeopardy!' as a playing field upon which we could do some science. We wanted the ability to use questions that had not been designed for a computer to answer. 'Jeopardy!' really represents natural language. You have to understand the English language and all the nuances and all the regionalisms, slang, and the shorthand to play the game, to get the clues. It's not just a piece of information.
"In 2009 the producers of 'Jeopardy!' watched Watson compete for the first time. Their concern was how do we keep it from becoming a stunt or a gimmick. This was different, this was the notion of knowledge acquired by a computer against knowledge acquired and displayed by the best Jeopardy! players. This could be something important, and we want to be a part of it. Many people are going to watch the 'Jeopardy!' show and look at Watson and how it competes in 'Jeopardy!' and the curiosity of the computer. They will focus on man versus machine, but the more interesting general challenge is, we are trying to produce a deep question and answering machine which will change the way people interact with computers and machines. We are going to revolutionize many many fields."
What do you think? Is this a gimmick? A ploy? Does a cluster of 750s beating humans at "Jeopardy!" make you more likely to purchase a Power Systems server? Does this mean we'll soon be able to interact with computers the way they did on Star Trek? Hopefully there will still be a way to connect my Model M keyboard to these computers of the future.