Watson the supercomputer

Stop everything you are doing: computers are now cleverer than people. To be precise, an IBM supercomputer named Watson recently won America’s Jeopardy quiz show. It emerged victorious after a three-night marathon contest against the two most successful contestants ever to have taken part in the show.

It may be the new champion of general knowledge, but creating a computer like Watson is no trivial pursuit. Over five years in development, it comprises 90 IBM servers, housing 2,880 processor cores – the average PC has only one or two. But then, the average PC would take about two hours to process the kind of information that Watson processes in three seconds. That’s what it needs to do to beat the human brain to the buzzer.

The reason Watson requires so much processing power is that it engages in no-holds-barred approach to answering questions: parallel computing. In other words, it simultaneously tries out lots of different possible ways of answering a question, then chooses the most likely answer based on probability scores it calculates (these are displayed on-screen in the video).

Surprisingly, Watson doesn’t get its information from the web, but from its own memory: “200 million pages of structured and unstructured content consuming four terabytes of disk storage, including the full text of Wikipedia,” according to Wikipedia. But the crucial point is that Watson is able to analyse and interpret all this natural language at a level that could be said to approach understanding.

Next stop: consciousness.

Lots more videos of Watson on the IBM site.

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