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Posted by on Feb 16, 2011 in Science & Technology | 0 comments

Watson Won!!!


In the end, the humans on “Jeopardy!” surrendered meekly.

Facing certain defeat at the hands of a room-size I.B.M. computer on Wednesday evening, Ken Jennings, famous for winning 74 games in a row on the TV quiz show, acknowledged the obvious. “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords,” he wrote on his video screen, borrowing a line from a “Simpsons” episode.

From now on, if the answer is “the computer champion on “Jeopardy!,” the question will be, “What is Watson?”

Computer scientists delight:

The computer-science department at the University of Texas at Austin hosted viewing parties for the first two nights of the competition.

“People were cheering for Watson,” says Ken Barker, a research scientist at Texas. “When they introduced Brad and Ken, there were a few boos in the audience.”

Texas is one of eight universities whose researchers helped develop the technology on which Watson is based. Many of the other universities hosted viewing parties for the three days of competition as well.

The one that got away:

The phrasing of the question Watson got wrong included what linguists refer to as an ellipsis, an omitted phrase whose meaning is implicit from other parts of the sentence. The clue that tripped up Watson, “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle,” left out “airport is named” in the second clause.

But, you’ll note, he was even savvy about that:

Jennings and Rutter were well compensated for their defeat. Jennings got $300,000 and Rutter got $200,000. Both say half their winnings will go to charity.

What after Watson? Racr (for “reading and contextual reasoning”):

“There’s a series of things coming in the next two decades — like automatic summarization of texts, like questions that are answered with much longer answers, much more complex kinds of questions, like explanations that are given for things — all this is coming step by step as developments occur,” [USC research associate professor Eduard Hovy] said.

So we asked the computer scientist the question that has been burning for many of the Technology Blog’s readers and commenters — are Watson and Racr steps toward the doomsday scenario of Skynet in the “Terminator” films, or will this lead to computers that make our lives better and potentially lazier such as in “The Jetsons”?

“I think if you’re afraid of technology this is the path to Skynet,” Hovy said. “But if you look and you say, ‘You know, technology is there to serve us and it makes our world better. It’s better to have a motorcar than a horse carriage. And it’s better to have a computer and run your banking affairs than no computer and doing everything very slowly through humans and so on. It’s better to have an ATM machine than having to stand in line’ — I think this is a big advance for us.”

Nova Science Now liveblogged the show. The full episode explaining the technology behind Watson is here.