For Watson Technology, What Happens After 'Jeopardy!'?


Wouldn't it be nice to have your very own supercomputer in your pocket?

If your laptop crashed while you were working on a major presentation, you could ask your portable expert to help diagnose the problem. If you wanted to bone up on Middle Eastern history, you could ask it to comb every document available and then wrap it all up in a simple summary (annotated, of course).

Best of all, instead of typing out basic questions on a cramped keyboard, you could speak to it in natural human language and it would understand.

Thanks to the researchers behind Watson -- IBM's whiz-bang computer designed to compete on "Jeopardy!" -- that sci-fi-like scenario is a little bit closer to reality.

In less than a week, the world will watch as Watson takes on the top human contestants on the popular trivia gameshow. But artificial intelligence experts say it may not be too long before the technology powering Watson spills over into doctors' offices, businesses and, eventually, maybe even your phone.

For the past four years, researchers at IBM have been grooming their computer program (named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson) to compete on "Jeopardy!" against the game's most succsessful champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

Watson Understands Questions in Natural Language

Not only does the program need to be able to recall facts and figures across a wide range of topics, it needs to understand the puns and metaphors commonly found in "Jeopardy!" clues. And, to win, it needs to do it all faster than the fastest human.

"It's an information-seeking tool that's capable of understanding your question to make sure you get what you want, and then delivers that content through a natural flowing dialogue," David Ferrucci, IBM's Watson team leader, said on the NOVA special "Smartest Machine on Earth," which premieres on PBS tonight. "I don't think the world has seen a machine quite like Watson and, frankly, I'm thinking where can we go from here?"

The magic of Watson is that beyond being able to search formal databases and tables for information based on keywords, it uses many different algorithms to understand and process natural human language.

In Medicine, Watson-Like System Could Be 'Doctor's Assistant'

"Classic expert systems tend to be brittle, they tend to be very narrow, they tend to be able to solve problems only in the way it was expressed in that formal math," Ferrucci told "What you see underneath the hood in Watson is a way to do that reasoning but ... right over the natural language content itself."

That might not sound so tricky at first, but think about all the nuances and wordplay woven into human language. Homonyms, inflection, double entendres -- they might be familiar to you, but they're foreign to even the most advanced computers.

"Dealing with natural language is a very, very hard task for a computer," Ferrucci said. "But then, moreover, there's tremendous potential if we can continue to chip away at this task."

In medicine, for example, a Watson-like system could serve as a kind of doctor's assistant, he said.

Let's say a patient suffers from a rare disease, the medical Watson could listen in on patient interviews and combine those conversations with the patient's medical record, family history and test results. Not only that, but it could cross-reference that material against revelant journal articles, research and other published information.

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