IBM and the Watson

IBM (International Business Machines), affectionately called Big Blue, has been making headlines for its various research initiatives. There was the improving of the efficiency in the manufacturing process of microchips in collaboration with the Diamond Consortium from the EU (European Union). IBM also developed a Solar-powered Desalination Plant for the city of Al-Khafji in collaboration with the Saudi-based Research group called the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST).

Then there was the breakthrough in amorphous real-time decryption without decoding the encrypted message, thanks to a thirty five (35) year old IBM Intern named Craig Gentry. This has some serious implications for Blackberry users (read anti-US insurgents!) and their supposedly private BB Messages, once the US Military, the NSA (National Security Agency), CIA (Central Security Agency) and Homeland Security get to be the guinea pigs to break in this trick pony.

Even more alluring is the prospect of making super-efficient and super-cheap Photovoltaic (Solar Panels) from Transition Metals in the Periodic Table such as Zinc (Zn), Copper (Cu), Selenium (Se) and Tin (Sn) as opposed to Rare Earth Metals such as Gallium (Ga) Germanium (Ge), Arsenic (As) and Dyspropium (Dy).

Sporting efficiencies of 9.6% may not impress, but their lower production costs and consequently value-added sale cost is attraction enough, prompting Japanese firm Solar Frontier to partner with IBM and breath life into their otherwise ignored PhD Research. No wonder IBM was ranked 3rd behind Apple, straight out of Cupertino in 2nd with Mountain View, California-based Google taking pole position in the so-called BrandZ Top 100 Report compiled by Analyst Millard Brown Optimor, their 5th such publication. Redmond-based Microsoft played the Lazarus in 4th position, a slip from previously higher rankings.

IBM’s balance sheet at the end of the Third Quarter of 2010 also reflects their brilliance of Watson with revenues of $24.3 billion and share valuation listing of $2.82, evidence that PhD’s encumbered Watson Researchers can spin money from R&D (Research and Development) and Patent Licensing. Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary. But I guess what people will most quite soon remember is the battle royale shaping up between Big Blue’s latest supercomputer, appropriately named Watson and Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

This match is one for the computer geeks in all of us, as the showdown throw-down, Shaolin Showdown Style, is slated for February 2011. Jeopardy with its affable Canadian host Alex Trebek a must-see television show for Generation Y – and yes, in real time too, not recorded on your DVR (Digital Video Recorder)!

How it works is elegantly simplistic, expressed best by the words of Eric Brown, Watson’s Research Manager, who explains, quote: “A question can be posed in natural language and, having read a whole bunch of information, data, documents, it can come up with a very precise answer to that question”.

IBM’s Watson, most likely the grandchild of IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer that made a mockery of Russian Chess champion and Chess Grandmaster, Garry Kasparov back in 1997 with its quick moves, is basically as you might expect: an oversized Google search supercomputer with Natural Language capabilities.

This brings back memories of my younger years while at Glenmuir High School, in Clarendon. At the time I was seventeen (17) years old and a student in Upper Sixth form preparing to do my final A’ Levels. Ironically, I was also doing an O’ Level course called Computer Studies for which I had to do a project. I opted to design a computer program that could solve complex mathematical problems.

My program, called Blue Fox, was written in Borland Turbo Pascal, an obscure Object Oriented 2nd Generation Computer Language that I had to teach myself, was actually started in 2006, long before Deep Blue was even heard of in those pre-Broadband Internet Days. Thus, I became the traitor to humanity on Glenmuir School’s mini Campus, labeled as a supporter of machines and jokingly referred to as the Terminator.

I was beset by the human tragedy of a Computer that could beat the Great Garry Kasparov – and my loyalty to my computer course and my program Blue Fox, which coincidentally had the same name. Many friends saw me as a traitor to the human race and at one point, chased me around the school to dunk me with water!

I was the ONLY person then on Glenmuir High School who celebrated OPENLY when Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov, as I was never fond of the USSR and Communism anyway!

Mr. Knight, my Computer Studies Teacher, did not teach Programming, only Borland Dbase.
So it was no surprise that later that year, when I submitted my project, Blue Fox that I won Glenmuir High Schools inaugural prize for Computer Studies. Back then, I was the ONLY programmer in a room full of Dbase people.

I later re-used the code at UTECH, while studying Electronics and Telecoms Engineering to design a computer project in C++ called Volumen Solidus, a computer program that calculated volumes of rotating 3D complex solids. I still remember the bedazzled looks – and doubters – when my computer program executed without loading the C++ environment and its menu-driven functionality, compared to everyone else’s rather hastily cobble together projects.

Curiously Borland Turbo Pascal is being taught now in High Schools across the length and breadth of Jamaica along with C++. Microsoft’s Visual Basic, Sun Microsystems Java and Netbeans and Haskell are now left for the Tertiary Level torture of Computer Science students at our two (2) local Universities.

Fast forward back to the here and now, folks! Another match (or rematch!?), a different time and Generation to get excited: Carbon-based life form(s) vs Silicon-based life forms. Certainly says a great deal about AI (Artificial Intelligence) and how far along AI has come.

This time, to be fair, the questions will be asked by Alex Trebek in Natural Language, with IBM’s Watson supercomputer having to use Cameras, Natural Language Character Recognition and Natural Language Voice Recognition to give its response. No special treatment for the grandson of IBM’s Deep Blue, the undisputed Chess Champ, even if IBM’s Watson is a chip of the ole’ CPU.

Personally, I smell Google somewhere in all of this, as their AI Technology used in Google Instant as well as their Self-Driving Car announced back in 2010 may be the secret sauce in the recipe for success, sure to bring back haunting bad taste of the defeat of 1997.

And Oh Yes! I am predicting a win for IBM’s Watson, just as in the movie The Computer wore Tennis Shoes (Walt Disney), despite the handicap of being a Silicon-based life form. And to all those John Conner-Terminator hunter wannabees, please….. please……. just give me a head start this time! As well as some time to place a wager and collect my winnings at Supreme Ventures Ltd’s Jus Bet!

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Lindsworth is a Radio Frequency and Generator Maintenance Technician who has a knack for writing about his work, which is in the Telecoms Engineering Field. An inspired writer on themes as diverse as Autonomous Ants simulations, Power from Lightning and the current Tablet Wars.