Science Talk

What Is the Watson Jeopardy-Playing Supercomputer, Alex?

Scientific American editor Michael Moyer talks about the sneak preview he caught of IBM's Watson Jeopardy!-playing computer. And's Larry Greenemeier spoke with Ford's Brad Probert about the new all-electric Focus at the Consumer Electronics Show last week in Las Vegas

Scientific American editor Michael Moyer talks about the sneak preview he caught of IBM's Watson Jeopardy!-playing computer. And's Larry Greenemeier spoke with Ford's Brad Probert about the new all-electric Focus at the Consumer Electronics Show last week in Las Vegas.

Podcast Transcription

Steve:          Welcome to Science Talk, the more or less weekly podcast of Scientific American posted on January 14th, 2011. I am Steve Mirsky. On this episode we will hear from's Larry Greenemeier with some big electric car news from the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. But first, our Michael Moyer spent part of January 13th at a first-of-its-kind event that I spoke to him by phone, shortly after he got back.

Steve:          Michael you were at a fascinating event just earlier today, why don't you tell us all about it?

Moyer:          It's right, I went up today a little bit up in the upstate New York to IBM's research facility there where they had a preview of the Watson Jeopardy! Challenge and what that is, is Watson is a computer, it's really a software setup that IBM scientists have been working on for four years now which has the purpose and intention of in at least in the immediate future of winning Jeopardy! and unlike chess as you can recall, you know, IBM created Deep Blue a number of years ago that eventually beat the world champion Garry Kasparov in chess. Jeopardy! is a much more difficult problem than chess as the head research scientist in charge of the project David Ferrucci said today you know, chess has a very limited space of possibilities and options that can happen on the board at any one time. Jeopardy! has a few things that make it very unique and difficult. One of which is that Jeopardy!, you even to just understand the question is very difficult for a computer, Jeopardy!, if you watch the program you know that there's a lot of word play, a number of puns, and to be able to understand the information that the answer back is looking for, you have to understand the context and lot of language and that's extremely difficult for computers to be able to do successfully. Once you understand the question of course you have to find the answer and it's not like they have a big tab separated excel sheet with all the possible answers to Jeopardy! questions they have, instead what they do is they've got huge databases of reference materials and what have you and the computer have to go through that database and figure out the sentence structure of all that material and then be able to link the question to the answer and also has to be able to do that of course in about three seconds.

Steve:          Let's just say so that people will put their key boards away, I can tell that there are angry listeners who are saying that there is no way that Ken Jennings is smarter than Garry Kasparov or Jeopardy! is not newly as profound an intellectual arena as chess but we are talking about a specific kind of problem solving that a computer has a lot more trouble with than a human being and chess is one thing and Jeopardy! is another thing.

Moyer:          That's right and nobody up there was saying today that this means that if Watson were to win that now computers are smarter than people. That's not the question that is being asked, just as it wasn't when Deep Blue beat Kasparov it's not like chess, the difficult and sublime as it is, is the ultimate test of human intelligence. This is really meant as kind of a test pad to be able to extract a huge amount of information from databases from these very large databases and to be able to query those databases in natural language terms and get back an answer very quickly and do it in a way that's very useful to the person asking the question. So what IBM wants to do after this Jeopardy! challenge is to apply Watson to, for instance, the health care field, where the doctor might be able to ask their computer a question that might help aid in diagnosis and be able to do that very quickly to ride on a huge database more than any one person could ever be able to expected to understand in their lifetime.

Steve:          And if anybody is wondering I am assuming it's named not for Watson of Watson & Crick but for Watson who ran IBM in the ‘50s.

Moyer:          That's right, yeah, Thomas J. Watson.

Steve:          Who famously is quoted as saying, but really did not say, that he couldn't foresee a need for more than four or five computers in the world at anytime.

Moyer:          That's right of course. This was at the time when computers were at the size of approximately the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in upstate New York.

Steve:          And was Alex Trabek actually there today?

Moyer:          Yes, he was great, it was a real show. This is actually where they are going to tape the Jeopardy! episodes coming out, they didn't say exactly when but it will be airing the first of three episodes will be on Valentines Day, February 14th and Alex was there and Ken Jennings was there and Brad Rutter who isn't is well remembered as Ken Jennings but he is the record holder for the highest cumulative ever amount won by a Jeopardy! player. He has won just about 3.2 million dollars playing Jeopardy!, so it'll be a three men-slash machine contest.

Steve:          So what you saw today is actually going to air as an episode of Jeopardy!.

Moyer: What I saw today was a little kind of test match they did, three categories words with 15 questions, Watson got off to a flying start got the first four and then from then on it was a little more evenly matched, Watson did end-up winning as the highest dollar total of $4,400 compared to Ken Jennings' $3,400 but again that was only, I guess what it would be a quarter of the way through a real game. What we are going to see coming up next month is a three-day kind of tournament of champion final type format where over the course of those three matches then the winner will be determined.

Steve:          And Watson will be one of those participants.

Moyer:          Absolutely Watson will be one of the three participants and they're playing for million dollars that the winner will get. If IBM wins they're going to give the entire thing to charity. If one of the other contestants wins they're going to give half of that to charity.

Steve:          So what were the bullet points that they tried to make in addition to that what you've already told us?

Moyer:          Well there were the two of the researchers spoke today, one of whom was David Ferrucci who is the principal investigator and he is the guy who has really been the driving force behind the Watson project and you know he spoke a lot about the challenges that this represented to be able to go forward and to be able to have a machine that is able to understand context in the way that humans can very quickly and easily understand context that takes almost no time at all to kind of figure out if you're talking about the word “ran', if you're talking about actually running down the streets or if you're talking about running a company for instance, it's very easy for us to get from the meaning of that just from the sentence that's it's in, it's very difficult for a computer to understand that. So he talked a lot about those issues and then we also had John Kelly who is the Director of IBM research there and he spoke about what Watson will be able to do in the future and the kind of applications it might have. He emphasized health care heavily and mentioned he also said it could be great in the fields of law, in governments, anytime where you have an incredible database of facts that you need to be able to draw on very quickly and get answers to in human language.

Steve:          So would you want Watson on your defense team if you're accused of something?

Moyer:          I would want my defense team to certainly have access to Watson, most certainly and my doctor to be able to have access to Watson and if I were going to be on Jeopardy! I would want to have access to Watson. One of the things that they were talking about the contestants Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter had played test matches against Watson earlier in the day and one of the things they commented on was Watson's very unique strategy for doing daily doubles, because if you don't watch Jeopardy! if you hit on a daily double you could chose the amount of money that you want to bet, to either if you get the question right, you get that amount of money and if you don't then you lose that amount of money. Most players on the show will, you know say, Oh, I'll bet a 1000 dollars or 2000 dollars and it will make a two daily double and bet everything they have. Watson was apparently betting very strange and precise amounts such as like 6813 dollars and no one could really kind of figure out exactly why Watson was betting these amounts but clearly there's an algorithm somewhere that says it's the smartest thing to bet.

Steve:          Well that's really interesting because you think you would come away with you know how the computer dealt with the questions but now it dealt with the betting strategy.

Moyer:          Oh it's the whole thing, I mean, you know part of our problem with Jeopardy! is understanding Jeopardy!, the quirks of Jeopardy!, what some of the category headings in Jeopardy! have very specific meanings that you understand if you keep watching Jeopardy! but if you're a computer you don't know what that is. They also had in order to make the contest as fair as possible, contestants and Jeopardy! have to click a little button in order to buzz in, because they didn't want to give Watson an unfair advantage of just being able to electronically signal, they actually built a mechanical button clicker that Watson will then have to trigger and then that mechanical device would have to come down on the button to give us the same amount of delay as the real contestants have.

Steve:          Well, I guess we'll have to tune in Jeopardy! in the middle of February and catch those episodes.

Moyer:          Yeah, I can't wait and if judging from the performance today when there was never any delay after a question was asked to one of the contestants tuned in and never one single incorrect answer, I think it's going to be pretty spectacular.

Steve:          Somebody got every question right.

Moyer:          Yes, some person got every single question right.

Steve:          And how we will be able to tell Watson apart from the other contestants.

Moyer:          Well, they've created of course an Avatar, digital avatar for Watson which is very IBM-like, there's a planet and the glow and Adam type string is going around it that you'll be able to see and in the taping today he was in the center position between the other two human contestants and where human contestants, you know, everyone writes down their name in cursive on the front of their Jeopardy! platform I guess whatever it is Watson was in center.

Steve:          Okay, so that will help us figure out who is who.

Moyer:          Yes, even with these incredible multimillion dollar winning jJeopardy! contestants; they're not nearly as robotic as Watson. Seems to appear.

Steve:          The Watson computer Jeopardy! challenge will be featured on our special episode of the PBS science series NOVA on February 9th. It's part of a three episode package airing all through Primetime that evening that also features Scientific American contributor David Pogue and his new series on Making Smarter Materials. Check your local listings.

Steve:          Scientific American dot com's Larry Greenemeier was in Las Vegas for the consumer electronic show last week. He talked with Brad Probert, the project manager for Ford's Transit Connect Vehicle, an all electric van but there was bigger news about another vehicle today Larry and Brad spoke.

Greenemeier: Now, what exactly was announced today?

Probert:          A slew of number of things, the big one of course was the reveal of the Focus electric so it goes in to production later this year.

Greenemeier: They're going to be fully electric.

Probert:          Yeah, fully electric, it's got batteries 23 KW hours, I think the advantage we have with that is the charge time we got is the nice power rating converter, so that the charge time well over three hours by the 240 volt connection, so it really brings down a lot of, like one of there's a number of inhibitors, not inhibitors the challenges with battery technology right now is there is range, there's recharge time and cost. So you know really work on shortening the recharge time helps one of the many of those concerns.

Greenemeier: Well how will the cost of the electric Focus compare with, you know, you would go and get a combustion engine Focus, then is it going to mean you know 5% or 3% premium?

Probert:   Yeah, pricing hasn't been said yet. I mean obviously it's going to be more expensive but so some of the other stuff that were announced were some of the applications to help, again kind of get, where we go from a gasoline vehicle to an electric vehicle that's going to be different; you have to assume different driving situations. So, as a customer you go into a knowing, okay, it doesn't have, I can't drive forever and stop at all these gas stations, drive through the night or something. But help you make it more user-friendly. There's an application that's going to be available in electric vehicle for you can go on to your phone, you can control certain features of your vehicle remotely. So, let's say you go into work or something or you go into a store, you can monitor the functions of your vehicle like you can remotely turn on the heating or the air conditioning while it's charging. The vehicle will get the temperature before you drive to save on your battery life; you can set the charge time when it comes on. We had a partnership with Microsoft for value charging where Microsoft works with the utility companies to define charging rates and times a day, so this application you can set it up to say, hey, I want to charge with the lowest rates and it will know what time at night that is and it will come on and charge for you and shut off.

Greenemeier: That had been talked about a lot, so.

Probert:          Yeah, it all like one of the key differences our technologies is partnership with Microsoft and the utility companies, is we know the time and day and with the short charge time and much shorter charge time, you're able to really get into that low cost utility, our utility companies change the time a day or sets or whatever we don't have to know that information, the application in that all takes care of that. You just have to say and it will give me the cheapest charge time and it knows how long you need. And some of the other features of that application are knowing locations of charge stations which is another big concern, so it shows you the range, in fact we are partners with MapQuest, it shows the charge stations within that range.

Greenemeier: Are you going to roll this out in a particular market first, or is it nationwide? What's the plan for that?

Probert:          Initially it launches about 19 cities, so it's fairly broad all across the US, you know, trying to get good information about, you know, users in all areas and then after that ramp up to, you know, the entire country. So, yet one other new features of that mapping application is you can play on your trip, so it knows your battery charge on your phones. You can be setting an alarm desk at your office. You got your car seen up there, you know how battery life and you say okay, why I need to stop by this store, so you plug in this store, you know how far it is, tells you how much battery, okay yeah you can go there. Okay, then after that I got to, you know, run by pick up my kid from school and then I am going to go home and it tells me you got left charging for that, if not you can turn the vehicle on to power up. So it is like, you know, interesting technology things to make the electric vehicle ownership experience. Yeah, you got to drive different, you got to think different. So you need these new tools with the new gas vehicle and you are going to the gas station straight you don't go on that computer say or where's the closest gas station?

Greenemeier: Right you know that you're going to find that.

Probert:          Yeah, you're going to find that right, so yeah, it's you know pushing new technology in creative ways to make electric vehicles more you know a reasonable proposition for consumers.

Greenemeier: Is there reason why Ford decided to go with a model that people already knew and recognize as opposed to like Chevy Volt where they created it completely new.

Probert:          Yeah, absolutely, absolutely because two big things for us, both the trends are currently there in the Focus all the same philosophy, you can take an existing vehicle. A vehicle that's engineered and designed and tested…

Greenemeier: Popular.

Probert:          Popular right…so you've got so all of the non-electric vehicle functions are there for you got, you know, it seems simple, you've got windshield levers, you got good tires, you got good suspension, you got nice seats, you got all that basic vehicle functions you want already designed and developed for you know high volume great vehicle. Then you add the electric vehicle part to it, so it helps to give you a much better vehicle pack, because you're not having to develop an entire vehicle just for a specific use.

Greenemeier: Right.

Probert:          You've got the vehicle developed, you just developed a power train, the only thing advantage about is in your platform scalability, so you can get the power train and interface to work with the Focus so then that platform that same car platform and if you make it in different forms you build it in different countries, you have that ability, you can take that electric vehicle, you can build it in your plant in US, you can take it and you can build it in your plan in St Louis in Germany. So you know the manufacturing flexibility with that is key also.

Greenemeier: Was there anything else that was new today as of today's key note?

Probert:          There were more interactive features with eco-driving games. Eco-driving habits like very specific techniques in regenerative braking helps increase your range. So, there's some guides in there, they'll help you visually get a sense for how could you're doing an economic driving for battery life.

Greenemeier: Right.

Probert:          It's a way to give you a gate that I mean, read something or study, it's like a good visual, if you are going down the road, you can see how it's going, like it says a consumer you need to do things differently we're giving new tools, this is something okay use your electric car, good luck. You know it's like really helping with that.

Greenemeier: Right.

Probert:          I guess the other thing we announced was, you know partnership, with Leviton and Best Buy's Geek Squad for charger installation.

Greenemeier: Oh, okay good, yeah.

Probert:          And so partnering with them to install for your home use though and I guess the different chargers on this stage on the market a lot of them are very structured, you got to built it in your house, obviously you got out the electrical supply anyway but you built the charger physically in your house, or if you move you know what you do, you have to go buy a new charger.

Greenemeier: Yes, right.

Probert:          So this installation gives you the ability to, you know, pull out the wire and plug into your car.

Greenemeier: Is it 220 or 110?

Probert:          Yeah, 220.

Greenemeier: Okay.

Probert:          Yeah, I mean it's really needed. I mean for the high voltage batteries the amount of power you got to use, you know. It's not like the home computer or something you're really using a lot of juice.

Steve:          That's it for this episode. Get your science news at, where you can check out our interactive feature Seven Amazing Exoplanets and follow us on Twitter, where you'll get a tweet about each new article posted to our Web site. Our Twitter handle is @sciam S...C...I...A...M—and don't forget to get the new free Scientific American Advances app for your smart phone or tablet. For Science Talk the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky, thanks for clicking on us.

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