Humans $4,600, Watson $4,400 in
January 17, 2011 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Jeopardy! Beta Test Round
As The Four Hundred has previously reported, IBM‘s question-answer supercomputer, known as Watson after Big Blue’s founder, Thomas Watson, is gearing up for a contest of wits against two top players of the Jeopardy! game show for three days February. To give the human contestants a chance to see what they are up against, IBM held a single round of the game at its TJ Watson Research Center last week.
While the Watson supercomputer sits on the ground floor in the facility, upstairs IBM has built a complete mock up of the Jeopardy! set, where over 50 past human champions of the game show and Watson have squared off as Big Blue shakes the bugs out of the system. Watson listens to the questions in real time with a microphone, processes the data in its main memory, comes up with several probable answers, picks what it thinks is the best answer, and hits the buzzer with a pneumatic finger, and gives the question response to a statement given by the show host. If this were a Turing test, Watson would pass. (I am not saying it is a Turing test, but Watson smells a hell of a lot more like a know-it-all nerd than any other expert system I have ever encountered or heard about.)
You can see the a video of the single Jeopardy! round here. In the video and in the snapshot below, that’s Ken Jennings on the left of the screen (who won 74 Jeopardy! games), the Watson avatar in the middle, and Brad Rutter on the right (who has the most winnings at $3.25 million of any player of the game).
In Jeopardy!, which has been on the air since 1964, you don’t answer questions, but rather given a statement from host Alex Trebek, you create a question for which the statement is the answer. The hard part is not amassing data that might be searched for to process a statement and come up with the question, but rather than the machine seems to have been taught how to process word play, double meanings, puns, and other tricks that are meant to be obtuse. For most people, there is a certain joy in doing this. (It is one of the reasons I am alive, for instance.)
The interesting bit for me is watching the data flash up showing probable and improbable answers as Watson is processing data to give questions to the statements. In the picture above, this was what Watson was “thinking” as it chewed on in a category called “M.C. 5.” The statement was: “The film Gigi gave him his signature song, Thank Heavens for Little Girls.” That “motorcycle club” and “Marine Corps” were even possible answers is a bit odd and provides some clues to how Watson is doing this trick.
Watson came out swinging, totally dominating a category called Chicks Dig Me, ironically. When Watson said “Let’s finish Chicks Dig Me for $800,” everybody in the test audience laughed. It is a pity that Watson can’t appreciate the humor in that. But Jennings came on strong and drew even right up to the last question, which Watson bagged for $1,000. Watson’s total in the fast round was $4,400, Jennings got $3,400, and Rutter bagged only $1,200. All told, the humans won. But, of course, this is not the way Jeopardy! works, so humanity lost that round.
IBM has created an avatar for the Watson super, which the Smarter Planet globe that has the hash marks that signify a light bulb going off–reminiscent of TJ Watson’s grumpy picture from his desk at IBM HQ back in the 1940s reminding his employees to THINK. As Watson is thinking, a bunch of multicolor “thought rays” orbit the planet icon, and as Watson becomes more sure of its answers, they turn from orange to green.
IBM has provided some technical details about the Watson configuration that will play three nights of Jeopardy! against Jennings and Rutter on February 14, 15, and 16. Here’s a picture of the machine:
The original Watson machine that IBM was talking about back in April 2009 was based on the company’s not-particularly-new BlueGene/P parallel supercomputer. But that is not going to help peddle Power7-based machines, which I can assure you that is a major part of what this grand challenge and publicity stunt is really about. (Ditto for the Deep Blue chess playing machine from the late 1990s, which helped make IBM a credible supercomputing vendor.) IBM is very keen on positioning itself as the king of data analytics, and Oracle‘s Exadata and Teradata‘s eponymous data warehouses are not playing Jeopardy!. (It would be interesting to see them try, and then have a runoff between the machines, though.)
The Watson iron that will take on humanity is comprised of 10 racks of Power 750 servers with a total of 2,880 cores and 15 TB of main memory. The database that IBM has for playing the game has 200 million pages of natural language content, about equivalent to the data in 1 million books. This data is stored in main memory, where it needs to be so Watson can scan it quickly enough to come up with the proper question in under three seconds. It is not clear if IBM will be flying the machine out to the Hollywood studios where Jeopardy! is played. With every millisecond counting, the company may just have to do that.
None of this has very much to do with the OS/400 and i platform directly, of course. But anything that helps boost the profile of IBM’s Power Systems iron helps to keep the i alive, however indirectly.