Fact Sheet

Rise of the machine: I.B.M.'s Watson supercomputer

I.B.M.'s 'Jeopardy!'-playing supercomputer blurs the lines between human and machine

Google beware: I.B.M has created a new supercomputer that has been touted as the "world's most advanced 'question answering' machine." Named "Watson," after two of the company's former presidents, the powerful computer possesses an unprecedented ability to understand questions asked in "natural" human language, and reply with the correct answer. To showcase its abilities, reports Clive Thompson in The New York Times, I.B.M recently pitted Watson against a group of former "Jeopardy!" contestants, who often lost to the machine. Watson will even make an appearance on the trivia program this fall. Will consumers be able to get their own computerized "brain" one day? (See the supercomputer up close.) Following, a quick guide:

Why is Watson impressive?
It's the first computer to achieve meaningful interaction with humans through speech. Because of the complexity of spoken language, which is filled with nuance and ambiguous meanings, programming a computer to correctly interpret a question is extremely difficult — and giving one the ability to respond with a factual answer is even more difficult. Watson is the first computer to do both, quickly, with a high success rate.

How does it achieve this level of comprehension?
Using more than a hundred different algorithms (rather than only a few, as do other question-answering systems), Watson is able to simultaneously run "thousands" of speech-analyzation operations, and access information from tens of millions of documents, in order to answer a question. Rather than produce a single "right answer," however, Watson generates a massive number of possibilities, and ranks each option in order of likeliness based on word relation. It then chooses the most probable answer.

Why "Jeopardy!"?
Unlike direct questions — "What is the population of Miami," for instance — "Jeopardy!" questions often include puns and subtlety, making them particularly difficult for a computer to decipher.

Has I.B.M. created any other notable supercomputers?
The most high-profile of I.B.M.'s game-playing computers is Deep Blue, which famously beat chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov in 1997. The technology needed to win at chess, however, couldn't easily be used to make money.

Can I buy a Watson?
Not yet. While I.B.M. plans to start selling the computer to companies within the next two years, Watson will likely cost several million dollars, and require the use of a million-dollar I.B.M. server to store its gargantuan database. But Watson creators predict the computerized "brain" could be available in a laptop within the next 20 years.

Read the full profile of Watson in The New York Times.

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