This number, one of the first 20, uses only one vowel.*
Got your buzzer ready? This is a real question from an episode of Jeopardy!, where contestants have only fractions of a second to process the question, search the annals of their brain matter, and put their thumb on the buzzer before two others do.
To the average person, the task sounds incredibly daunting – that’s why it’s so entertaining to watch others struggle with this test of smarts and speed on TV. But for people like Ken Jennings – you may remember him as the unassuming software engineer from Utah who remained on the show for a total of 75 wins in 2004 – trivia utilizes some serious muscle memory. During his string of victories, we all started to wonder if he was mortal or machine.
This year, we got our answer. Ken and Brad Rutter, the Jeopardy! winner with the highest all-time earnings were pitted against Watson, an entirely new breed of contestant who would eclipse the champs and school us mere homo sapiens in the reach and power of technology. You see, Watson is the name given to the supercomputer invented by IBM specially designed to play the TV game show.
The 22Tango Search team had the chance to see Watson live in action at the National Retail Federation’s Big Show last weekend. And although it’s hard to see the thought process that ocurrs within Watson in milliseconds, its approach to answering Jeopardy! questions is surprisingly human. First, Watson takes the question and analyzes it, looking specifically for the object of interest, whether it’s a person, place or thing. Then, the supercomputer uses shallow analytics to search within its encyclopedic knowledge for answers. Once a crude list has been made, Watson collects and evaluates evidence against each of these answers, and finally combines the evidence to settle on one.
A computer upstaging Jeopardy!’s all-stars is all in good fun for the viewing public, but the future applications of Watson may prove revolutionary. Sam Palmisano, CEO and Chairman of IBM dreams of putting Watson and his future spawn to work in doctors’ offices, hospitals, customer service and financial hubs. For example, when a patient comes to a doctor complaining of dizziness, fatigue and extreme thirst, Watson can aggregate the information and use its analytics to suggest a diagnosis. Similarly, when a customer calls into a tech support hotline, the Watson technology can assess the mechanical problems and determine how to repair or replace them.
Years ago, technology like Watson was confined to books and movies about futuristic worlds. Now, the future seems a whole lot closer.
*The Answer: Seventeen. It uses the letter “E” four times!