Mr. Watson . . . . come here.

Watson-supercomputer-635This week IBM cut the ribbon on a “Watson Client Experience Center” in New York City, where along with five other centers it will provide access to the Watson supercomputer. A few weeks ago IBM also announced the availability of what it calls Bluemix, a suite of several cognitive-based cloud services. Several of the articles I read about this announcement say that Watson is bringing artificial intelligence to the world. But it’s not. Watson is a pretty amazing computer system and can do a lot of great things, but the computer is still no smarter than your toaster. You may ask how I can say that since Watson was able to soundly beat the two best Jeopardy champs a few years ago.

Let’s look at how Watson works. First, Watson is a supercomputer, meaning that it has massive computational power and a fast input / output. Watson is configured as cluster of ninety IBM Power 750 servers each of which uses a 3.5 GHz POWER7 eight core processor, with four threads per core. In total, the system has 2,880 POWER7 processor cores and has 16 terabytes of RAM. Watson has a natural language interface meaning that it is designed to be queried by conversation, in the same manner as Apple’s Siri.

Watson uses a hypothesis generator. What this means is that when it is asked something, Watson searches its databases and compiles all of the answers that seem to answer the question posed to it. Through its sheer blazing computational speed Watson can search this entire database quickly. It then ranks the results according to the frequency that it encounters answers. For the Jeopardy challenge Watson was fed with multiple reference sources like encyclopedias, textbooks and all of Wikipedia.

Finally, Watson uses what IBM calls dynamic learning. This means that when Watson makes a mistake, which has to be often when working in something as imprecise as English, Watson can take feedback from the user when told that its answer is wrong. It stores this feedback and uses its ‘learning’ to influence the rankings when it next encounters the same question.

But under it all Watson is no smarter than your desktop computer because there is no actual intelligence in the system, artificial or otherwise. What Watson does to simulate intelligence is to present a friendly language interface and fast computational power to come up with answers to questions. But Watson is only as ‘smart’ as the databases underneath of it. For Jeopardy they did not allow Watson access to the Internet because the internet is full of incorrect facts. Watson has no way of distinguishing between what is true or not true, other than through feedback from users who correct its mistakes. But Watson would be like many of us and would fall for every Internet hoax that hits the web. For example, there was an Internet hoax earlier this year that said that Flo from the insurance commercials was killed, and if Watson was connected to the web it would believe such an untrue rumor based upon the sheer volume of claims made about the hoax.

This is not to say that Watson can’t do amazing things. Imagine Watson paired with Siri. Let’s face it, Siri is okay with driving directions but can quickly get flustered on almost anything else. With Watson’s database behind Siri it would become much more useful in a hurry. And even for driving directions Watson would help Siri be better. Siri is great at getting you between towns, but I’ve noticed that in crowded urban environments that Siri regularly wants you to pull into the wrong parking lot or driveway, and over time Watson would help Siri learn these little nuances of the map through user feedback.

Expect over the next few years to see a flood of new apps that do a better job of working through spoken interface. Already there are interesting new ventures that plan on incorporating Watson. For example, the founder of Travelocity wants to roll out a service called WayBlazer that will help you figure out things to do when you travel. The goal is to help you find activities that interest you rather than being steered to the normal tourist traps. A start-up called LifeLearn wants to build a tool to help veterinarians diagnose pet ailments better. A company called SparkCognition wants to offer a service to help security people spot security risks by having Watson ‘think like a security expert’. Expect all sorts of new programs and apps that take advantage of Watson’s language interface and the ability to quickly search databases.

This is a big breakthrough in that this is the first time that mass computational power will be brought into our daily lives through apps. Those apps are going to start doing things that we have always wanted computers to do. But let’s not forget how quickly computers are getting better. I reported last month on a company that expected to have a desktop supercomputer by 2017 that will be several magnitudes faster than Watson. Within a decade there will be computers everywhere with the power that Watson has today. And let’s also not forget that Watson is not smart and that there is zero cognition in the system. Watson doesn’t think, but rather just searches and compiles large databases quickly. That is incredibly useful and I will be glad to use Watson-based services – but this is not yet anything close to artificial intelligence.

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