Thursday, February 17, 2011

Watson for $200: What is a semantic wunderkind?

YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, NY - JANUARY 13:  (L-R) Exec...    Getty Images via @daylife
I am only somewhat impressed by Watson but to be fair, Watson is only seven years old.The most interesting thing about it is that it represents some real milestones for the semantic web.I also like that they are running the machine on Linux. Like most young people, Watson only understood questions once they were texted to "him." The newspapers fatuously report that Watson has beat us at our own game and yet humans are the kind of animals that invent games, trivia, and computers - none of which any so-called "artificial intelligence" has even come close to doing. I am not going to knock this achievement. This will be remembered as a historic moment because this is really an advance in our understanding of how to get machines to use "natural language" input and this is really going to help out the semantic web. The processing speed and sorting of data was remarkable.

HAL 2001  Game Hint: Let the computer win!According to the article in Wikipedia, Watson is made up of a cluster of ninety IBM Power 750 servers (plus additional I/O, network and cluster controller nodes in 10 racks) with a total of 2880 POWER7 processor cores and 16 Terabytes of RAM. Each Power 750 server uses a 3.5 GHz POWER7 eight core processor, with four threads per core, and yet he still thinks that Toronto is in the United States. I think he is ready for his high school diploma now. As a child of the 60s, Stanley Kubrick has made me suspicious of anything that I think might even be remotely capable of sealing all the doors and sucking all the oxygen out of the room.

According to IBM, "Watson is an application of advanced natural language processing, information retrieval, knowledge representation and reasoning, and machine learning technologies to the field of open domain question answering."

I like the qualification "knowledge representation." I make it a point not to ascribe anthropomorphic qualities to inanimate objects - especially if those qualities include things like "knowledge" when its definition is still being debated and explored by neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, and yes, even educators. We certainly do not know enough about intelligence to make any proclamations that Watson is doing anything close to "reasoning" since we are not really sure about what goes into that process (calling it a process is even suspect). But according to David Ferrucci, IBM's lead researcher on Watson "Humans are learning machines that live and experience the world and take in an enormous amount of information — what they see, what they taste, what they feel, and they're taking that in from the day they're born until the day they die," he said. "And they're learning from all the input all the time. We've never even created something that attempts to do that." So you see, according to Ferrucci, that is all there is to it - you take in information (input) and you spit out intelligence (output). I am not going to even address arguments about human psychology, intuition, creativity, inspiration, and emotions. Just looking at this from the "how-does-a-neuron" work kind of level, we are still in our infancy - okay, maybe seven years old. Would you ask a seven year old directions to the airport?

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