IBM might change future technology

Next week, the IBM computer Watson will take “Revolutionary Moments” for $1,000, Alex. This $30 million super computer will take on Jeopardy! legends Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in the newest man versus machine competition that is sure to have big implications for the future of knowledge.

IBM and Jeopardy! have plastered the web with teasers and videos about the competition and many technology writers have given their two cents about this game show clash of the titans.

Win or lose, Watson is a huge leap forward for Artificial Intelligence. The vast amount of knowledge it displays is impressive enough, but the ability to understand the complexities of the English language (including Jeopardy’s puns) is awe-inspiring.

Our parents like to tell stories about the computers they had at their universities a generation ago, and almost all of them involve the phrase, “the size of this room.” Those same computers couldn’t outperform a common calculator today, but in their shadow, Watson was born.

Granted, Watson is bigger than the average laptop computer today, but the capacity is incredible. Even if it can’t beat Jennings and Rutter, it will certainly put my HP dv6000 to shame.

For every time your computer freezes, Watson answers a riddle about 18th-century Russian poetry. The next time your computer downloads a song, Watson will learn which Asian country comes third alphabetically (Bangladesh).

Imagine a world in which the average computer has that kind of power. Forty years ago, the most powerful computer couldn’t do what the least powerful computer does today. In our lifetime, Watson could become the model for mainstream computers.
Excuse the boldness, but this is going to change everything.

Think about what this will mean. The kind of knowledge we choose to remember is going to be radically different because Watson’s decedents are going to be in the palms of our hands, reminding us that the Panama Canal was completed in 1914.

It’s going to be like Wikipedia, but with more accuracy and less pesky “reading.” It’s Google meets AskJeeves meets a university library. Every ounce of human knowledge is going to be put in one place, and it’s going to be accessible just by asking for it.

If that doesn’t sound like a revolution, nothing will. Decades ago, all math was done longhand. If you wanted to know what 96 × 41 was, you had to reach for a pencil and paper (the answer is 3936). Now, you just reach for a calculator or a cell phone.

Imagine that kind of shift in all areas of knowledge. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to know how old Hannibal was when he crossed the Alps, you found an encyclopedia. Today, it takes fifteen seconds on the internet. By the end our lifetime, you are only going to have to say it out loud, and your computer will have the answer.

Will this ability to lean on technology make us dumber? It’s certainly possible. We won’t learn information, because it’s stored so simply in our handheld device and all we need to do is ask.

But let’s look at this with the glass half-full. This technology, this revolution, this computer is going to make us all geniuses.

We’ll still keep some of the same information in our heads, but the knowledge we delegate to our own personal Watsons will free up room for a higher level of thinking. We’ll have a greater capacity because our minds will be able to focus on interpretation and understanding.

At least that’s one way it might play out. If we look at Watson as a tool and not a crutch, it will allow us to break down barriers.
If we use it as a crutch, we’ll probably all have jobs cleaning LCD screens for our computerized leaders.

Whatever happens on Jeopardy! next week, the fact Watson can compete with the game’s great players means we’re moving in a direction with limitless possibilities.

The concept of human knowledge and artificial intelligence is going to be forever changed by what we see on the set of our favorite television quiz show.

This computerized contestant is going to revolutionize how we see computers and information. What is Watson?


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