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IBM’s Watson Takes on Jeopardy!

I’m sure by now most of you have seen the catchy IBM commercials where IBM engineers and employees explain their great ideas and forward thinking, stating, “I’m an IBMer. Let’s build a smarter planet.” One of the latest and by far the most talked about commercials by IBM is the one about Watson. Watson is a system designed for answering questions. It is a computer that uses deep analytics to uncover meaning in human language.

This is truly an amazing feat, since, as the commercial states, “real language is filled with nuance, slang and metaphor. It’s more than half the world’s data, but computers couldn’t understand it. Watson is a computer that uncovers meaning in our language and pinpoints the right answer instantly. It uses deep analytics to answer questions computers never could before, even the ones on Jeopardy.” So, Watson will be able to distinguish meaning from statements like Groucho Marx’s famous quote, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know,” which exploits the fact that it’s hard to tell from that sentence structure if the elephant was actually in his pajamas or if he was wearing pajamas when he shot the elephant.

All the hype around Watson is partially due to the great technology, but, more likely, it’s due to the public challenge Watson is undertaking, going up against two live contestants on Jeopardy this coming Monday, February 14th. Watson will take on Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter to prove its capabilities at answering tricky, play-on-word questions in just three seconds!

Watson’s ability to answer questions so quickly is a real testament to its power. If Watson were only operating on a single processor, it may take it up to two hours to answer just one question. Speeds like that would definitely not cut it on a show like Jeopardy, so, luckily, Watson has a team of thousands of POWER7 computing cores working to keep it up to speed. Created on a new computing infrastructure, Watson uses a combination of hardware and software, achieving 500 gigabytes per second of capability with tons of bandwidth in order to complete massively parallel computations. This is what makes Watson “greater than the sum of its parts.”

What’s truly amazing though is the implications Watson has on various industries. For instance, it could impact healthcare by providing critical, timely information to physicians to help treat patients. Or, in finance where information continues to grow around 70% each year, it could help put together logical connections among data to see, for instance, which companies are likely to be acquired or go public, saving valuable time people may otherwise waste stumbling around in the dark. Watson could also change the entire structure of call centers and customer service departments, increasing service quality for users and making processes extremely more efficient – so, say goodbye to wasting hours on the line pressing 9 to get to the next representative who might be able to answer your question.

Whatever the implications may be for the future, IBM has done a remarkable job bringing attention to their latest invention. Through all the YouTube videos, TV ads, online marketing and social media buzz, there are few people who are unaware of Watson. And, just as IBM’s Deep Blue beat chess’ world champion, most everyone is looking forward to seeing Watson’s public debut on Jeopardy this Monday, including myself!

This post was first published by Meredith L. Eaton on March Communications’ blog, PR Nonsense, and may be viewed here.

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