Feeds

Watson? Commercial – not super – computer

Off-the-shelf gear ‘gets’ humans

3 Big data security analytics techniques

Now that IBM’s Watson has pounded the best human Jeopardy competitors into a fine slurry, let’s take stock. Our human proxies took their ass-kicking in good spirits, with Ken Jennings writing on his ‘Final Jeopardy’ card, “I for one welcome our new computer overlords.” (For the sake of adding a bit more inane trivia, the Jeopardy answer for his phrase would be “Who was Kent Brockman on The Simpsons?”)

And I believe I’ve found the best Register reader comment so far: In response to this story’s subtitle, “Robots will keep us as pets,” came this clever bit: “There already are humans kept as pets by machines - they're called ‘iPhone owners!’” LinkOfHyrule, we’re not worthy.

It’s gratifying to see so much coverage of a tech story in the non-tech media, though some of it is frustrating as well. A good many of our fellow carbon-based life forms refer to Watson as a “supercomputer” and laud its ability to do lightning-fast “searches”. Neither of these describe what Watson is or what Watson does.

First of all, it’s not a supercomputer. It’s a commercial system – or rather, a bunch of commercial systems lashed together for parallel processing purposes. The hardware is readily available POWER-based gear that can run either IBM’s AIX Unix operating system or Linux.

It’s the same box that’s running commercial apps like SAP and Oracle in thousands of companies. Watson is made up of 90 4-socket IBM Power 750 systems with 360 8-core POWER7 processors running at 3.55GHz with 16 GB of memory per server. The systems are connected together via 10 GbE networking.

There is also a misconception about how Watson comes up with answers – it’s not ‘searching’ for them as we typically think of the search process. You can’t do that with many Jeopardy questions due to their indirect nature.

After Watson is asked a question, it analyzes the question and topic, and pulls hundreds of possible “candidate” answers from hundreds of sources, and then begins hypothesis generation. Thousands of pieces of “evidence” are sorted to weigh the validity of the candidate answers.

These candidate answers and their “proofs” are scored and synthesized using deep analysis algorithms to create answer “models” from which the final answer choices – and Watson’s confidence in each – are derived. Watson, of course, goes with the “highest-confidence” response. On Jeopardy, this process took place before the human contestants who knew the answers could hit their buzzers.

No supercomputer required

What is coming across in the media, fortunately, is why all of this matters: real-time answers that are accurate despite the human frailty of the information we provide and the questions we ask. We human types are ambiguous. We have nearly endless ways to say the same thing. Our statements and questions are unstructured, and must be interpreted through the context in which they’re made.

Computers want things to be black or white. They have to go to great lengths (as we can see above) to be able to figure out the meanings in human statements or questions. Humans are great at processing ambiguous, unstructured data; our brains are wired to see patterns and put together theories as to why those patterns occur. Computers are great at doing the grunt work of sifting through masses of evidence to either support or disprove our theories.

This Jeopardy exercise isn’t about computers besting humans. It’s really about how collections of computing hardware and software can be optimized to understand humans better, and to understand what we’re trying to get them to do. A lot of time, effort, and money is expended in getting real-world data into a form where it can be understood and processed by digital devices like computers. Watson is the best recent example of a machine crossing over the divide between human and machine-style thinking.

This means that in the future, we’ll be able to spend more time on actual human work and less time on generating digital-compatible data to feed the machines. This will pay concrete dividends even in the near term. Information from thousands of patients’ vital signs and millions of clinical reports and doctors’ notes could be synthesized to provide diagnoses that aren’t guesswork.

Businesses can make sense of staggering amounts of data that have been “noise” until now. Who knows – maybe our consumer information and requests and incoherent rants could be analyzed in such a way that we get actual help from a help desk. No supercomputer required. ®

SANS - Survey on application security programs

More from The Register

next story
This time it's 'Personal': new Office 365 sub covers just two devices
Redmond also brings Office into Google's back yard
Dropbox defends fantastically badly timed Condoleezza Rice appointment
'Nothing is going to change with Dr. Rice's appointment,' file sharer promises
Bored with trading oil and gold? Why not flog some CLOUD servers?
Chicago Mercantile Exchange plans cloud spot exchange
Just what could be inside Dropbox's new 'Home For Life'?
Biz apps, messaging, photos, email, more storage – sorry, did you think there would be cake?
IT bods: How long does it take YOU to train up on new tech?
I'll leave my arrays to do the hard work, if you don't mind
Amazon reveals its Google-killing 'R3' server instances
A mega-memory instance that never forgets
Cisco reps flog Whiptail's Invicta arrays against EMC and Pure
Storage reseller report reveals who's selling what
prev story

Whitepapers

Designing a defence for mobile apps
In this whitepaper learn the various considerations for defending mobile applications; from the mobile application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies needed to properly assess mobile applications risk.
3 Big data security analytics techniques
Applying these Big Data security analytics techniques can help you make your business safer by detecting attacks early, before significant damage is done.
Five 3D headsets to be won!
We were so impressed by the Durovis Dive headset we’ve asked the company to give some away to Reg readers.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Securing web applications made simple and scalable
In this whitepaper learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.