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IBM pits Watson super against humanity

This time, we're in Jeopardy

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"This downtown boy met and married an uptown girl." On the popular Jeopardy game show, such a statement functions like a question in terms of being a piece of input data that expects one and only one bit of output data, in this case an actual question: "Who is Billy Joel?"

While playing the Jeopardy game is not all that difficult for human beings, being good at such trivia is decidedly non-trivial. For a supercomputer - even one crammed full of data - being able to suss out the double-entendres and little nuances of the statements and come up with the question is a very tough challenge. According to researchers at IBM, playing Jeopardy is in fact one of the grand challenges of computing - which is why a BlueGene massively parallel supercomputer, nicknamed Watson, is being trained to play the game and to take on people live in the studio in 2010.

The Jeopardy challenge is akin to the Deep Blue parallel supercomputer taking on chess champion Gary Kasparov. In 1996, it lost, but it won a six-game match by one game (two wins for Deep Blue, one for Kasparov, and three draws) the next year.

Back in the mid-1990s, IBM was a joke in the supercomputing racket, and Cray and Silicon Graphics were building the truly innovative and powerful machines and cheap x86-Linux clusters were just starting to get traction. IBM's Power2 and PowerPC processors were 32-bit chips with nothing much impressive about them and its 64-bit PowerPC 620 and 630 parts were utter failures and would not come out for several years. (Ironically, the 64-bit PowerPC AS chips that were tucked inside of AS/400 minicomputers in the summer of 1995 were excellent processors, but IBM's Unix server nerds didn't see the wisdom of using these chips until 1997. Those AS/400 Power chips form the basis of IBM's advances in the Unix space).

So back when Deep Blue was announced, to say that IBM had something to prove is a bit of an understatement. IBM had to show that it could do parallel supercomputing, and the chess match with Kasparov is probably the smartest PR stunt that Big Blue has pulled since it was incorporated in 1911.

With the Watson machine and the Jeopardy challenge, IBM doesn't have to prove it knows supercomputing. In the past decade, IBM has put its system engineers, scientists working at IBM research facilities around the globe, and numerous supercomputing experts from government and academic labs to build a portfolio of different parallel computing platforms, including the massively parallel BlueGene to the hybrid x64-Cell blade architecture embodied in the "Roadrunner" to giant clusters of its commercial Power Systems such as the future "Blue Waters" Power7 monster.

What IBM is trying to prove with the Watson supercomputer - and the question answering (QA) software it is developing to run atop it - is that computers can be pumped full of textual data from many different sources and answer questions. The flipping around of question and answer like Jeopardy does changes the basic problem very little, according to David Ferrucci, Watson project lead and the principal researcher working on the Watson QA software and the iron that will support it.

"We're trying to get the computer to deal with natural language more effectively," says Ferrucci. "Since Jeopardy is such a large domain, it is like we are trying to get the computer to study. Of course, the challenge is that the game has such a broad domain and people play with such confidence."

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