Friday, February 25, 2011


History was made last week on the game show, “Jeopardy!” when a machine named Watson (named after IBM co-founder Thomas Watson) made mincemeat of two former “Jeopardy!” champions. Watson received the first prize of $1 million while the two former Jeopardy! champions received $300,000 and $200,000.

The mad scientists at IBM spent four years teaching Watson to read, listen and perhaps even think. According to IBM, Watson represents a giant leap forward in a machine’s ability to process the nuances of natural language. Yep, we may have witnessed the birth of that talking computer in Star Trek.

But is it truly a “smart” machine? Well, not really. The truth is that computers are still quite stupid. They only speak one language, called “binary,” which consists of exactly two letters: 0 and 1. Those 0’s and 1’s can represent all numbers or can be interpreted as “on” or “off” and “yes” or “no.” When you add it all up, those ones and zeros can represent everything from pictures on your display, a space shuttle trajectory or a Facebook status update.

In order to provide the “question” to Alex Trebek’s “answer,” Watson was able to scan roughly 200 million pages of data stored in 15 terabytes of RAM where it could be accessed fast enough to provide an answer in less than 1/100th of a second. That is pretty darn impressive by machine standards but how does that compare to a human? I did some research and came up with some interesting results.

For raw processing power, Watson could process 80 trillion numerical operations per second. That is absolutely astounding! Why, that’s almost as much as our national debt in dollars! However, based on the number of neurons and synapses in our brains, we humans can process the equivalent of about 100 quadrillion numerical operations per second – roughly 1000 times more than Watson. And we can chew gum at the same time, nah-nanny- boo-boo.

Watson has 15 terabytes of memory capacity. Humans have . . . Well, we don’t really know but estimates range from 750 gigabytes to 6.4 terabytes or more. Watson almost certainly has us on capacity.

Computers are naturals at solving complex math equations but interpreting the nuances of natural language is quite a leap. Watson appears to have jumped that hurdle. But, still, Watson is just adding 1’s and 0’s and not actually “thinking.” So we humans have the advantage. For now.
I read an interesting scholarly paper written by a Carnegie Mellon University professor that measures historical computing performance and extrapolates that to come up with a prediction of when computing power will exceed that of a human. We meat bags can rest easy for now. From his estimate, our species will comfortably rule this planet for at least another 10 years or so. But his paper was published before Watson won “Jeopardy!”.

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