Article in the New York Times: What is IBM’s Watson?
Watson is IBM’s next grand challenge. In 1997 IBM built Deep Blue, which beat the world champion chess player Kasparov. IBM is hoping to do it again by beating previous champions of Jeopardy, and has signed up with the TV show for an actual competition.
Watson is the latest in a string of trends in the computer science world. In the late 80′s and early 90′s artificial intelligence research entered the AI winter, where funding slowed down due to a lack of results. Projects like MYCIN lead to a great deal of hype, and people believed computers were on the verge of true intelligence. Unfortunately the breakthroughs failed to appear – and research slowed down.
In the 90′s the predominant idea with artificial intelligence was creating a set of rules to guide the computer. Building models of language, grammar, speech, and intelligence. However the models being built were never powerful enough to compete with human intelligence, and the models were very complicated to build.
Recent breakthroughs in machine learning however are changing the landscape. Whereas before researchers would painstakingly build a model by hand, current trends are to build a simple but flexible model. The computer would then be fed a staggering amount of information, essentially teaching the computer. These breakthroughs are what lead to speech, and handwriting recognition. It is also the key idea to modern natural language processing, which is what allows Watson to actually compete against humans.
These advances have been enabled by faster and cheaper computers, as well as the enormous growth in machine readable information. Everytime someone adds information to wikipedia, or to a blog post, it allows computers to learn from it.
However it isn’t clear whether these advances will be enough. Already speech recognition advances have plateaued, and it is an open question whether computing power and massive amounts of information will be enough to make true artificial intelligences.
Most likely there is still room to grow. Knowledge engines will supplant search engines when we just need answers to questions. Whether or not we’ll have computers acting as personal assistants is unknown, but Kurzweil certain thinks so, I myself am not so sure.