The IBM super-computer named Watson caused quite a stir by winning in Jeopardy! Since this technology is possible what can it do for you?
On February 14, 2011, history was made when a computer developed by IBM named Watson competed with two former Jeopardy! champions and in a three-day tournament and ended up the winner. This occasion fomented a lot of buzz in different directions related to what this technology means. Everything from the beginning of Skynet and the Terminator to a system that can augment the health care industry was mentioned.
To me, this technology is similar to what happened to computers in general. In 1946 the United States military built a computer, ENIAC, weighing in at 30 tons with a footprint the size of two tractor trailers. Now, in 2011, I type on a laptop, literally on my lap, without crushing me to death. Or look at today’s cellular phones. In the last century we could call people, store contacts and send text messages. Some of those first phones looked like a GI Joe phone, large and clunky. In my pocket is a smart phone, performing all the mentioned functions. It can also connect to the Internet, act as a GPS, place music and take photos and videos. Keep this in mind as I briefly describe Watson’s hardware.
The Driving Force Behind Watson
Watson is driven by ten racks of 90 IBM Power 750 servers running Linux. Each machine contains 32 POWER7 cores or processors, running at 3.55 GHz, for a total of 2880 cores. This is like having 2880 3.55 GHz computers linked together running as one machine.
To put this in perspective, a single processor computing the information to provide a Jeopardy!-style answer (in the form of a question of course) would take two hours to complete, whereas Watson takes about three seconds, on par with a human being. All this iron requires two twenty-ton commercial air conditioning units. For a network, Watson isn’t connected to the Internet, but uses ten gigabit network speed. This is 90,000 times faster than a typical home network. All of this weighs in over forty-five tons filling a rather large room.
For the software, Watson uses Natural Language Processing to handle the processing of the answers in Jeopardy! It’s also designed using UIMA (Unstructured Information Management Architecture), the foundation for its programs that analyze the objects such as text, audio and images.
All this hardware combines for some amazing processing power. Watson is capable of running at 80 teraflops (a teraflop is one trillion operations per second). The human brain is capable of more but the actual figure isn’t really known. Some say 100 teraflops, others say 10,000. Either way, this computer is surely up there in computational ability. Just think, this helped Watson provide the Jeopardy!-style answers in a form of a question in three seconds from receiving the text message representing the answer on the game board.
In this respect, Watson is a computer representing the capability of assisting the human intellect in ways we’ve only been able to dream about. This sort of computer has applications in the medical field, education and other professional areas. Anywhere we have large volumes of information that require expedient access can use this computer’s help. But what can such a machine do for the individual?
My Avatar, My Assistant
Right now having your own Watson is too impractical. It takes up too much room, uses too much energy and has a clumsy interface. However, in due time something like Watson can conceivably take up the size of a laptop computer. In the near future, this “laptop” will be capable of gathering your requests, maybe scheduled in the morning and off it goes to complete the tasks at hand.
I imagine this with the work I do. I write lots of test programs to represent customer problems. These tests are used to troubleshoot the problem and eventually used in test suites to make sure problems don’t come back in the software. This work requires setting up the data in a database to test against, creating the application project, running various iterations of the test, researching certain concepts applicable to the computer program, installing software and so on. If I were able to provide some of this work to my Watson, I can focus on the creative aspect of the job and together we’d be a productive team.
My typical morning might involve me greeting my computer, my avatar, and then submitting my list of jobs. After work, my assistant can seek traffic-free routes, order some Chinese and tell the house to turn on lights and prepare for our arrival. This technology is coming so get used to it and think of how it can be useful. In this way, it might not be so scary.