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In the News 2-23-11

Artificial Intelligence triumphs over humans, making humankind the winner.

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It was the biggest man-versus-machine supremacy test in history since “Deep Blue”, the IBM computer that beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. Watson is the IBM computer that researchers have been prepping to take on humans in the quiz game Jeopardy. The two top contestants of all time are Brad Rutter as the biggest all-time money winner in Jeopardy’s history, and Ken Jennings, who won 74 consecutive Jeopardy games, and then went on to surpass Rutter as biggest all-time game show winner in history. Watson (named after IBM President Thomas Watson) has been created with the ability to understand natural human language and to excel at questions and answers. In the end, Watson proved its domination at both.

The biggest challenge for IBM scientists was teaching Watson to tell the difference between literal and metaphorical expressions and understanding puns and slang. The ability of a machine to learn is the essence of the field of artificial intelligence. While there have been great advances in the field, there hasn’t been anything close to human thinking.

“Language is ambiguous; it’s contextual; it’s implicit,” said IBM scientist David Ferrucci, a leader of the Watson team. Sorting out the context — especially in a game show filled with hints and jokes — is an enormous job for the computer, which also must analyze how certain it is of an answer and whether it should risk a guess, he said.

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This is how Watson played Jeopardy:

First, at the same time the answer panel appears to the two human players, Watson is fed the answer in text form. Watson then queries its database for an appropriate response, without using the Internet. (Note: Game shows are federally regulated and there were two auditors present while the episode was filmed to make sure the computer wasn’t using the Internet for the answers.) Watson, like its human competitors, had to push a physical buzzer to answer the questions.

Watson’s shortcomings were realized in several different ways, one of the most obvious being Watson’s inability to recognize when an answer has already been given. He cannot hear what other players are saying, but it might be a feature that IBM will add in the future.

For instance, after Jennings stated incorrectly the 1920s was the decade in which Oreo cookies were introduced, Watson jumped with his answer: “What is 1920?”

“No,” said Trebek. “Ken said that.” Everybody laughed except the computer, whose avatar turned orange in embarrassment. Rutter was right when he said: “What are the 1910s?”

Among the (human) head-scratching replies by Watson:

In Tuesday’s Final Jeopardy, Watson took a dive, and its human competitors handled the question with ease. The category was U.S. cities, and the clue was: “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle.” The correct response was Chicago, but Watson weirdly wrote, “What is Toronto?”

A human would have considered Toronto and discarded it because it is a Canadian city, not a U.S. one, but that’s not the type of comparative knowledge Watson has, Nyberg said.

And in the category “Nonfiction,” with the clue “The New Yorker’s 1959 review of this said in its brevity & clarity it is ‘unlike most such manuals, a book as well as a tool.’” Watson incorrectly responded “Dorothy Parker.” (Wow.) The correct response was “The Elements of Style.”

Watson may have “beaten the humans”, but it made humankind the winner.

“A human working with Watson can get a better answer,” said James Hendler, a professor of computer and cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “Using what humans are good at and what Watson is good at, together we can build systems that solve problems that neither of us can solve alone.”

In what was apparently an act of sarcastic defiance, the final response by Jennings included, not only the correct answer, but the comment, “I for one welcome our new computer overlords”. Fortunately, the still somewhat limited language skills programmed into our new computer overlords should prevent them from discovering such an act of defiance….at least for now.

And that’s our final answer.

Until next week…

~Lori Cline