Language is arguably what makes us most human. Even the smartest and chattiest of the animal kingdom have nothing on our lingual cognition.
In computer science, the Holy Grail has long been to build software that understands — and can interact with — natural human language. But dreams of a real-life Johnny 5 or C-3PO have always been dashed on the great gulf between raw processing power and the architecture of the human mind. Computers are great at crunching large sets of numbers. The mind excels at assumption and nuance.
Enter Watson, an artificial intelligence project from IBM that’s over five years in the making and about to prove itself to the world next week. The supercomputer, named for the technology company’s founder, will be competing with championship-level contestants on the quiz show Jeopardy!. The episodes will air on February 14, 15 and 16, and if recent practice rounds are any indication, Watson is in it to win it.
At first blush, building a computer with vast amounts of knowledge at its disposal seems mundane in our age. Google has already indexed a wide swath of the world’s codified information, and can surface almost anything with a handful of keywords. The difference is that Google doesn’t understand a question like, “What type of weapon is also the name of a Beatles record?” It may yield some information about The Beatles, or perhaps an article that mentions weapons and The Beatles, but it’s not conceptualizing that the weapon and recording in question have the same name: Revolver.
Achieving this is what makes Watson a contender on Jeopardy!, a quiz known for nuance, puns, double entendres and complex language designed to mislead human contestants. Google Search, or any common semantic software, wouldn’t stand a chance against these lingual acrobatics.