What does Watson’s victory really mean?

What is the real significance of the recent victory by the IBM “Watson” computer system on the quiz show Jeopardy!? It certainly wasn’t a profitable undertaking: IBM’s $1 million winnings, which will be given to charity, pale in comparison to the estimated $1 billion price tag of the project. A somewhat more tangible benefit to IBM is that the project has reportedly done wonders in burnishing IBM’s image as a leading-edge technology company, especially among students (see FINS article).  It has also already led to various co-development contracts in the health and commerce sectors.

The real significance is IBM’s demonstration that a computer system can rather well “understand” and respond to natural language queries, which has long been an obstacle in real-world applications of artificial intelligence. Note that even Google’s spectacularly successful search engine is not really able to understand sentences or questions — all it can do is to return links to some webpages that have a few of the words and phrases entered. This is discussed more in the FINS article mentioned above.  In a future post, we shall discuss how this project differs from the machine conquest of chess between 1994 and 2004, and consider the consequences for future mathematical research in particular.

Computers have not yet passed the “Turing test,” a test proposed by mathematician Allan Turning back in the 1950s, wherein a human exchanging messages with an unseen partner cannot distinguish between the computer and a human. But they are getting close. As observer Robert Epstein writes,

One thing is certain: whereas the confederates in the competition will never get any smarter, the computers will.

So where is all this heading? A recent Time article features an interview with futurist Ray Kurzweil, who is a leading figure in the “Singularity” movement, a loosely coupled group of scientists and technologists who foresee an era, which they predict will occur by roughly 2045, when machine intelligence will far transcend human intelligence. Such future intelligent systems will then design even more powerful technology, resulting in a dizzying advance that we can only dimly foresee at the present time. Kurzweil outlines this vision in his recent book The Singularity Is Near [Kurzweil2005].

Many of these scientists and technologists believe that we are already on the cusp of this transition. Consider for a moment the enormous advances that have occurred just since the year 2000:

  1. Many of us hold in our pocket (e.g., the iPhone) a device that is more powerful and capacious than the world’s most powerful supercomputer of 20 years ago. What’s more, this device can instantly retrieve (via the Internet) far more information than is available in any local public library, not to mention music, movies and much, much more. The same smartphone has already redefined photo-journalism.
  2. Machine translation is now enormously better than it was just a decade ago. Indeed, there are some rather impressive “apps” for translation than one can download onto one’s iPhone or equivalent, enabling one to speak one language and immediately see (or hear) its translation into any of numerous other languages. Effective voice interaction with the computer and even real-time mathematical character recognition from handwriting are now available.
  3. Social networking has exploded in popularity in the past few years. Nearly 600 million persons (roughly one in ten human beings on the planet) now have Facebook accounts. Twitter and Facebook pervade public and private daily life.
  4. Many young people spend over 7 hours per day connected to one or more electronic media (often two or more simultaneously) — see Kaiser study.  It is mooted that cognitive changes are taking place as measured by things like the Stroop test which quantifies response to “interference.”
  5. These powerful waves of change even afflict high-tech companies. Sun Microsystems, a pioneer of the minicomputer era, was recently acquired by Oracle after a prolonged decline, and Silicon Graphics, another technology leader of the 1980s, is now a mere shadow of its former self. Of all the early hardware vendors in the PC revolution, only IBM and Apple still flourish.

Futurists such as Kurzweil certainly have their skeptics and detractors. Many question Kurzweil’s long-term extensions of Moore’s Law. Others note the rather sluggish advance in medical technology, lagging behind the grand predictions of the Singularity movement a few years ago. Technologists such as Bill Joy are very concerned that humans could be relegated to minor players in the future, and that out-of-control, nanotech-produced “grey goo” could destroy life on our fragile planet: Wired article.

Many others (including the present bloggers) believe that these writers are soft-pedaling enormous societal, legal, financial and ethical challenges, some of which we are just beginning to see clearly. One instance of this is the increasingly strident social backlash against technology and science itself, particularly by the “older” crowd.

For example, at the present time in the San Francisco Bay Area (hardly a bastion of conservatism) there is a growing backlash to Pacific Gas and Electric’s “smart meters,” which send hourly usage data to a central server via wireless cell technology. Objections range to claims that they are “inaccurate” (in spite of several extensive tests that have verified their accuracy) to claims that they are endangering health by sending out a few bytes of data to a central server via wireless networks once an hour. (If these people really think that this is an issue, then to be consistent they certainly shouldn’t own a cell phone or ever go within 100 feet of anyone who is using one!) See this NY Times article for details.

In addition, there are still enormous numbers of the public, even in first world nations (and especially in the U.S., that presumed bastion of science and technology leadership), who reject essentially all of modern science in the area of geology, biology, evolution and even astronomy. See our previous blogs on Creationism and global warming denial, Reliability of radiometric dating and Misuse of probability by creation scientists.

Nonetheless, we agree that the basic conclusions of the Singularity crowd are undeniably on target: Moore’s Law — appropriately interpreted — is here to stay, for at least another 20 years or so. Progress in a wide range of other technologies is here to stay (in part because of Moore’s Law). Scientific progress is here to stay (again, in part because of Moore’s Law-based advances in instrumentation and computer simulation tools). And all this is leading directly, inexorably and unstoppably to real-world artificial intelligence within a decade or two (or three or four).  This will not end war and pestilence or cure the many varieties of human frailty nor does it presage a grim disphoria. As Rodney Brooks, roboticist and recently retired head of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, noted [NOVA2011]

I don’t think we need to worry anytime soon about the machines taking over. I work in robotics, and the robots we build haven’t gotten rid of people. They just make them more productive. We can relax for a few hundred years, is my guess.

Whether “we” merge with “them,” or “they” advance along side of “us” is an interesting question, but either way, the future is coming whether we like it or not. Get used to it. As the mathematician I.J. Good futuristically predicted back in 1965 [Grossman2011]:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

In his memorable inscription conceding defeat to Watson at the end of the Jeopardy! match, Ken Jennings summarized the situation well: “I for one welcome our new computer overlords.”

In addition to the reports mentioned above, some additional background information may be had in these references:


  1. [Grossman2011] Lev Grossman, “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal,” Time, 10 Feb 2011, available at
    Time article.
  2. [Kurzweil2005] Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near, Viking Penguin, New York, 2005.
  3. [Markoff2011a] John Markoff, “Computer Wins on ‘Jeopardy!’: Trivial, It’s Not,” Yew York Times, 16 Feb 2011, available at NY Times article#1.
  4. [Markoff2011b] John Markoff, “A Fight to Win the Future: Computers vs. Humans,” New York Times, 14 Feb 2011, available at NY Times article#2.
  5. [Powers2011] Richard Powers, “What Is Artificial Intelligence?,” New York Times, 5 Feb 2011, available at NY Times article#3.
  6. [Markoff2011c] John Markoff, “Progress in Artificial Intelligence Brings Wonders and Fears,” New York Times, 14 Feb 2011, available at NY Times article#4.
  7. [NOVA2011] “Will Watson Win at Jeopardy?,” PBS, 20 Jan 2011, available at Online article.

[Added 20 Mar 2014:] IBM has announced that it will employ their Watson technology in a new research project investigating causes and potential treatments for brain cancer. Details are given in this Ars Technica report.

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