For ushering artificial intelligence and machine learning into the mainstream
Players, here’s your clue: This celebrity began their career with a game show before going on to become a chef, fashion maven, movie director, songwriter, medical assistant and much more.
Answer: What is Watson?
In the early 2000s, IBM was looking for its next big initiative, a project that would generate buzz similar to the public and press adoration that followed when its supercomputer beat chess legend Garry Kasparov in 1997. The tech giant settled on the idea of developing a computer system that could compete on the TV game show Jeopardy! The result—which combined near-instantaneous data analysis, precision decision-making and the ability to understand human speech—provided the first mainstream evidence that the age of artificial intelligence had arrived.
Watson was in some ways similar to search engines, in that it quickly sifted through massive amounts of information. But unlike search engines, which serve up many possible answers, Watson had to pinpoint the right answer. The Jeopardy! format was daunting: Clues are created with tremendous subtleties using clever slang, jargon and wordplay.
To cram contextual knowledge into the system, the IBM team fed Watson tens of millions of documents, including encyclopedias, thesauruses, novels, old Jeopardy! clues and archives of The New York Times. The team created more than 100 algorithms to sort through the text, with another set of algorithms helping to rank potential answers to a particular question.
In 2007, Watson could barely beat a 5-year-old, let alone the game’s elite champions. But the team kept iterating, using mock Jeopardy! games against past winners to improve the tech. By 2011, Watson was ready for its debut against two of the show’s biggest winners, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. It wasn’t even close: Watson crushed its human rivals.
While the origins were playful, IBM’s hopes for the technology were—and are—all business. The company has put billions of U.S. dollars into Watson, which led to a Chef Watson cooking app and helped Grammy-winning music producer Alex Da Kid write a hit song. Tech firms across the globe are investing in AI and machine learning, with C-suite leaders from healthcare to banking to telecom exploring the potential impact. (One example: While no doctor can sift through the more than 160,000 cancer research papers published each year, Watson can do so in a matter of seconds.) Watson proved that artificial intelligence has moved from science fiction to the real world.
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