Thursday, February 17, 2011

Watson Beats Jeopardy! Champions at Their Own Game

Ray Kurzweil says that the next "singularity" will be when a machine (artificial intelligence) becomes as powerful as a human brain. He says that by doing the simple math, using the exponential growth predicted by Moore's Law, we can see that this will happen in 2029. A computer named Watson (right) made a big step toward the singularity by beating two humans in a game of Jeopardy!.

For decades we have been saying "Yeah, but a computer will never be able to ..." and then the computer does it. People conveniently forget that we really thought a computer could never beat a Grand Master in Chess - until Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1997.

Now, a computer has made another big step toward the singularity by beating the best competitors in the history of the TV game show "Jeopardy!". In February, 2011 the computer named "Watson" came out on top in a two day match-up with Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter (left).

Before the event, Ray Kurzweil pointed out that, in matters of innovation, beforehand we think something is impossible but immediately after it is accomplished we somehow forget what we fervently believed and it seems almost commonplace to us - a sort of "no big deal" reaction. We can see this happening now with public reaction to Watson's victory. Many of the comments on blogs are pretty embarrassing in their attempts to discount what an amazing moment of history this was.

It is hard for us to remember that moments before the Wright brothers' famous first flight, common wisdom was that heavier than air flight was physically impossible. Only 66 years later we had people on the surface of the Moon. In only 30 years I have gone from feeding punch cards into a computer the size of a room to carrying a lap-top around with me that has many times the power of that early behemoth.

I know there are few people to whom the Jeopardy! game is news but I think it provides a real-time opportunity to study and learn from our reactions to innovation.

Click on the heading above to see part of the Jeopardy! show with Watson.

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