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IBM Watson Jeopardy Challenge -- Computers starting to understand human language?

Updated on January 21, 2012

Can Watson Understand Human Language?

Last night, I was able to watch the Jeopardy episode where IBM's Watson, a supercomputer, challenged two human players. I am getting some mixed thoughts about it. I guess I am both skeptic yet at the same time optimistic about this whole thing. I am actually a bit surprised that it is not in the news as much as it should be.

I am reminded of John Searle's Chinese room argument. I mean, is there really anything inside Watson that can understand human language or is it all just syntax? Also, the other way around, you can ask: is there really anything inside us that can understand or is it all just complex algorithms and patterns?

Watson couldn't even fit inside the studio where they shot the show. It was merely being represented by an avatar, one that changes color based on its "mood". Watson was in a separate room, composed of large cabinets full of IBM servers/computers.

It is actually reminiscent of how computers used to be. A long time ago, only the military had access to computers. They were large, just as we see in the movies, with light bulbs and transistors. But now it is here right in front of me, at my personal disposal, and some can even fit in my pocket. We can only imagine and assume that one day this same trend will happen to Watson, and this kind of technology fit in our pockets as well.

Why did IBM choose Jeopardy?

It is quite true that jeopardy is a game that is perfect to test something when it comes to semantics or meanings. The game is full of ambiguous clues that could have multiple meanings in different contexts. This is something, in my opinion, that is important when it comes to assessing Watson's "understanding" of things.

You know, I am no engineer or mathematician that could ever understand how Watson actually works. IBM surely hired a lot of geniuses in order to come up with something like this. It took a lot of great minds and tedious planning and work to be able to come up with Watson's programming, I am sure.

Many times during the game, you'll really be able to see that Watson's choices are seemingly random, but of course this couldn't be. There is nothing random about Watson, only the illusion of it. The fact that he is programmed, means that he works with a basic set of rules and patterns. Watson does not really choose, he merely follows. He just applies the algorithms and processes he was programmed with to the large amount of data in his storage.

Of course, I am not saying that it is useless. I'm actually so amazed by it. The technology is very very young and I can only imagine what the future would be like. The way it can organize and differentiate data is very impressive. And they chose the game of Jeopardy to showcase exactly what Watson is aimed to do.

Watson Avatar and Logo
Watson Avatar and Logo
Google search engine
Google search engine

The Future of Search Engines?

One significant role Watson could have would be in the development of online search engines. This is actually something that worries me, I guess. I mean, I have been learning about keywords and SEO or Search Engine Optimization. Keywords and backlinks have become a part of me. Search engines are predictable and in a sense "beatable". This is why there are a lot of spam and irrelevant results in some of our queries. Watson and the processes of Watson can change all of this.

There was also a part in the show where they talk about how it could one day help doctors diagnose patients and many other things. I am even thinking that it could have something to do with analyzing and predicting stock markets, just as portrayed in Darren Aronofsky's movie Pi.

There's really so much one can expect and imagine because of this technology. I am so envious of people in the future. All the innovations and human progress allowed to flourish by the market, by competing private firms, is making our lives better and safer. There could come a day when there would no longer be Facebook or Google and there will only be Watson.


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