Thursday, June 17, 2010

I.B.M.'s Supercomputer to Challenge 'Jeopardy!' Champions

Nice article on Watson, IBM's question answering super-computer.
The great shift in artificial intelligence began in the last 10 years, when computer scientists began using statistics to analyze huge piles of documents, like books and news stories. They wrote algorithms that could take any subject and automatically learn what types of words are, statistically speaking, most (and least) associated with it. Using this method, you could put hundreds of articles and books and movie reviews discussing Sherlock Holmes into the computer, and it would calculate that the words “deerstalker hat” and “Professor Moriarty” and “opium” are frequently correlated with one another, but not with, say, the Super Bowl. So at that point you could present the computer with a question that didn’t mention Sherlock Holmes by name, but if the machine detected certain associated words, it could conclude that Holmes was the probable subject — and it could also identify hundreds of other concepts and words that weren’t present but that were likely to be related to Holmes, like “Baker Street” and “chemistry.”

In theory, this sort of statistical computation has been possible for decades, but it was impractical. Computers weren’t fast enough, memory wasn’t expansive enough and in any case there was no easy way to put millions of documents into a computer. All that changed in the early ’00s. Computer power became drastically cheaper, and the amount of online text exploded as millions of people wrote blogs and wikis about anything and everything; news organizations and academic journals also began putting all their works in digital format. What’s more, question-answering experts spent the previous couple of decades creating several linguistic tools that helped computers puzzle through language — like rhyming dictionaries, bulky synonym finders and “classifiers” that recognized the parts of speech.

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