IBM’s Watson outsmarted two top Jeopardy! champions, winning $1 million that was split between selected charities – World Vision and World Community Grid. But IBM didn’t build Watson to make money from game shows or take home a title. The optimized computer system behind Watson – Deep Question Answer (DeepQA) – demonstrates the potential for more significant rewards for businesses, communities, and the world at large.
Jeopardy! served as the ultimate test and showcase for the DeepQA because the game covers a broad range of topics – history, literature, politics, arts, entertainment, science – and the clues involve analyzing subtle meaning, irony, riddles, and other complexities that computers don’t typically understand. Winning requires deeply analyzing a great deal of data from different sources that don’t easily align – imagine, for example, analyzing transcripts from an interview alongside an empirical study. Through this analysis, Watson not only generates the best possible answer from its knowledge base of data, it also knows what it doesn’t know. It gauges its confidence in the answers it generates and it learns as it goes to continually improve accuracy. Watson represents a significant shift in the computing paradigm – from computers that calculate to computers that seek out information from unstructured data and adaptively integrate new information, as it becomes available, to improve its understanding.
Best of all, Watson responds to questions asked in standard, casual English. One reason that traditional computers have always had difficulty in finding a single, precise answer to questions is because they have trouble communicating in natural language. If we can teach a computer to play Jeopardy!, this same technology could also deliver answers to questions in many real-world industries, revolutionizing how we interact with data.
The highly tuned engine driving Watson is a cluster of standard, commercially available IBM Power 750 servers, built on IBM’s latest Power processor, POWER7 – the most advanced mainstream servers on the market, designed not only to process enormous numbers of transactions, but also to analyze large amounts of data, and do both in real time. These POWER 750 servers are particularly well suited to the task because of their ability to hold large amounts of data in main memory and to access that data faster than other servers. Building a high performance system, such as Watson, from commercially available servers means that DeepQA capabilities will be available to all different kinds of enterprises today, helping them solve the toughest computing challenges.
One of the greatest hopes for Watson’s technology is in the healthcare industry. Imagine a computer system loaded with every medical paper and record in existence and then having it on hand to help answer diagnosis questions during an emergency room crisis, or at the pharmacy to evaluate drug interactions and medication discrepancies. Because the medical field constantly produces new findings, drugs, and procedures, it’s nearly impossible for a person to keep up. But a mini Watson replica could. Already, IBM is working with medical experts at the Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine to identify the best ways to incorporate Watson-like technology to the practice of medicine.
The potential doesn’t stop there. Imagine a legal computing system that can quickly sift through case law to help find a useful precedent or citation. Or finance systems that enable hedge fund managers to quickly make informed decisions about which investments to make, or to avoid. Through smarter computing, and systems highly tuned to the task, the possibilities are incredible.
In celebrating IBM’s Centennial, we reflect on innovations that have helped transform society and one insight is clear – data has been and will continue to be the world’s most valuable commodity. For that reason, the potential of Watson-like technology to make use of the data we’re producing at an enormous rate will transform how the world works – saving time, money, and lives – and open the door for even greater innovations in the next 100 years.
To effectively compete in today’s changing world, it is essential that companies leverage innovative technology to differentiate from competitors. Learn how you can do that and more in the Smarter Computing Analyst Paper from Hurwitz and Associates.