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Deep Q&A: An Interview With IBM’s Dr. David Ferrucci On Watson Beyond Jeopardy!

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During the recent SXSW Interactive fest here in Austin, developerWorks’ Scott Laningham and I had the opportunity to sit down and do an interview with the principal investigator behind the Watson Deep QA technology, Dr. David Ferrucci.

You may recognize Ferrucci from some of his recent TV appearances (or the IBM smarter planet TV spots addressing the power and opportunity the Watson technology presents).

Me, I was just glad to have the opportunity, along with Scott, to ask some specific questions that had been on my mind about Watson. And also to point out to Dr. Ferrucci that I had the last name Watson before our supercomputer did!

It was a fun and fascinating 13 minutes, and, for my money, one of the highlight interviews Scott and I have conducted in recent times.

Continued kudos to Ferrucci and his entire IBM team for such a great success with Watson.  Clearly, the Jeopardy! victory is just a launching point for the exciting new places where this new technology is likely to take us from here.

Watson On Watson

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I’m no relation to IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, Sr.  I joke I’d be on a yacht somewhere if I were.

But I definitely consider myself part of the proud IBM tradition of using technology to solve challenging business problems.

So when our computer (actually, a whole bunch of computers put together along with some transformation Deep Q&A technology developed by IBM Researchers) finally went on air to play the human “Jeopardy!” champions, Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, I was standing by with baited breath.


Before the match got underway, Alex Trebek gave an excellent tour of Watson behind the scenes at our Yorktown Research Lab, where these matches were played.

He also set up the match with some color, explaining this was the next “grand challenge in computing” and that we were about to witness what could be an historic competition.

He also joked that Watson would have appreciated the crowd’s applause, but can neither hear nor see, and would receive all questions in a text message at the same time he read them aloud to the human contestants.

Trebek explained Watson would be represented by an avatar, then took us backstage to meet Watson.  Watson was set up in two units, he explained, and the first thing you noticed was a lot of “noise,” emanating from two very large refrigerator units to help Watson keep his cool.  Literally.

Watson consists of over 2800 POWER750 chips, sitting in some five separate racks on two different units.  Linking them all together, you create a deep analytics engine that houses over 15 trillion bytes.

But, Trebek explained in his continuing set up, Watson would have to “stand on his own” and rely on the knowledge that was stored in his memory, and that he couldn’t be connected to the Internet to look anything else up during the match.

“Some of the world’s most brilliant minds have created this most impressive system.”

That was self-evident from the debut of the first match.  In a matter of a few minutes, Watson was overpowering Jennings and Rutter, some $5000 to Jenning’s $200 and I think Rutter’s $1,200 or so.

Watson was, in short, smoking the humans, nailing a very tough Double Jeopardy question for $1,000 on the second question.

But, in the second half of the first round, the humans came back in a big way, this time smoking Watson.

It is ON.

However, you won’t be able to fully appreciate what you’re seeing until you learn more about the Deep Q&A technology that was powering Watson.

For that, check out the IBM Watson Web site, and you can also see some of the related materials here in our press kit.

As for me, I cannot WAIT until the match to pick back up tomorrow (we IBMers also have NO clue who’s going to win).

I want to send my IBM Research colleagues my best wishes — whether Watson wins or not, you have already demonstrated that we’re well into the next frontier of computing, and I’m just glad you’re on our side!  LOL

Signed, Todd “Turbo” Watson

The Human (For Now)

P.S. Also human, lead investigator on the Watson/Jeaopardy! initiative, Dr. David Ferucci provides an answer to the question “Why Jeopardy!” in the video below.

Written by turbotodd

February 14, 2011 at 11:23 pm

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