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What is Watson? December 28, 2011

Posted by bodonovan in IBM, Innovation, Watson.
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One of the exhibits at our stand this year will relate to the Watson system which has been making a big splash in the media. If you read some of these articles and wondered what all of the fuss is about this blog post attempts to explain what Watson is and why we thought it worth including on our stand.

In recent years, IBM researchers have made great advances in building question answering systems and they decided to build a system which could take on a high profile challenge that the general public could understand to prove how far the technology has advanced. They gave their system the nickname Watson after Thomas J. Watson the founder of IBM. The target they chose was to compete in the Jeopardy! game show because:

  1. This game show is very popular in the Unites States and has been a popular show over several decades. As a result most members of the public know the rules of the game and appreciate how difficult it would be for a machine to compete in. Unfortunately the game is not shown on television in Ireland so people might need to check out the Wikipedia page about the game to learn about it.
  2. Unlike a traditional quiz where contestants have to provide and answer to a clear question, Jeopardy! contestants are presented with answers and in order to win they must know what is the corresponding question. Sometimes there are several questions which to which the same answer could be given and contestants are expected to use common sense to judge which question is the one being looked for (e.g. if the answer was “5,280”, the question they want would be “How many feet in a mile?” and not “What is 330 multiplied by 16?”). Teaching common sense to computers is notoriously difficult.
  3. Watson bases its reasoning on a huge bank of information including sources such as Wikipedia. Much of this information is written in normal English text which can often be ambiguous and contradictory. In the Jeopardy! game you lose points for giving an incorrect question, so Watson needs to calculate how confident it is that it has found the correct question before pressing the buzzer.

IBM was delighted when Watson beat two past champions in a televised live game. However, we did not invest all this money simply to develop a system capable of winning a TV game show. We believe that the technical advances that we made as part of the Watson project can be applied to other real world problems and we have established a new division that is currently building such systems. Part of this team is based in IBM’s research lab on the outskirts of Dublin and perhaps some of the Young Scientists might work in this division in the future.

If you are interested in learning more, you can view the video below or even better you can come visit our stand and try out the system yourself and ask our staff questions about how it works.

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