April 29th, 2009

PC keyboard

I'll take artifical intelligence for 400, Alex!

As a spec fic writer, I am always interested in stories about artificial intelligence. I also happen to be a huge Jeopardy fan, so when I saw this NY Times story about an IBM computer program competing on Jeopardy, of course I was intrigued.

According to the article, the IBM team “is aiming not at a true thinking machine but at a new class of software that can `understand' human questions and respond to them correctly. Such a program would have enormous economic implications.” The program is called Watson, after IBM's creator, and it's not yet ready for even non-prime time, but both IBM and the folks at Jeopardy are making plans. Watson will receive questions as electronic text, while the human contestants, as always, see the question in writing as Alex Trebek reads it aloud. Watson will have a synthesized voice to answer questions, and, when he/she/it gets one right, to choose the next category. IBM will move a Blue Gene supercomputer to Los Angeles for the contest, and will not connect it to the web or otherwise allow Watson any outside help.

The article talks about a machine's advatnage when it comes to speed. Watson was able to immediately respond to the clue “Bordered by Syria and Israel, this small country is only 135 miles long and 35 miles wide,”” with the Jeopardy-format quesiotn, “What is Lebanon?” It was considerbly less accurate on other responses, though, and even declared that a sheet was a fruit.

Assuming the buzzer is implemented as usual, Watson could clean up. The importance of the buzzer in Jeopardy cannot be overemphasized. You can know how to respond to every single clue, but if your reflexes don't beat the competition, you're not going to win. You have to wait until Alex Trebek finishes talking to buzz in, and if you go early, you're locked out for a few seconds. It's a tricky thing!

But off course, if you buzz in and answer wrongly, you lose money, so even machine reflexes won't help if you don't know the correct response. The article cites the example of the sentence “I never said she stole my money.” Try saying that sentence and stressing a different word each time. Language is not absolute, like math, which is why I find it more fun to play with.

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