Does super-computer Watson stand a chance on Jeopardy?

On February 14, 2011, in Miscellaneous, by Robert Dallison

Remember when Deep Blue beat world champion Garry Kasparov at chess back in 1997?

Although Deep Blue won that six-game match, many AI commentators pointed out that the accomplishment was focused on a very narrow cognitive area – understanding the rules of chess, and selecting the best move to play within a specified time format.

While the accomplishment was significant, it was still more about programming and CPU speed than about anything we would call “machine intelligence”.

Now 14 years later, IBM is back. This time it’s all about Watson, a super-computer that will compete on Jeopardy against two of the all-time champions of the well-known quiz show.

“So what?”, I hear you say, but actually you should expect to see some mind-boggling technology at play here. Voice recognition, natural language semantic analysis, heuristic search algorithms… Just thinking about how to program all of that – and get a response within two or three seconds – is enough to make anyone’s head hurt.

In order to win Jeopardy (or even participate), Watson needs to handle not only a vast range of subjects, but also the cognitive challenges involved in understanding and analyzing Jeopardy clues (not to mention Alex Trebek’s sense of humor). These usually require some level of linguistic intuition and cultural awareness, in addition to encyclopedic knowledge.

So although it is still about programming and CPU speed, this time around the computer’s performance is likely to cross the line into a domain that most of us would consider “intelligent” in some sense.

Sceptical? Then think about the original test of machine intelligence proposed by Alan Turing – “A human judge engages in a natural language conversation with one human and one machine, each of which tries to appear human. All participants are separated from one another. If the judge cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test.” [source Wikipedia]

Of course, the Turing test raises a host of questions, among which my favorite is whether the ability to behave indistinguishably from a human is, in itself, a definition of intelligence…

But I digress. Regardless of how one chooses to define intelligence (or lack thereof), it will be interesting to see how Watson performs tonight and the following two days. Make sure to watch these episodes of Jeopardy, if you are even vaguely interested about how advanced computer science has really become…

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The Rubber Elephant Effect

On August 19, 2010, in Business, Miscellaneous, Running, by Robert Dallison

If you’re anything like me, you occasionally get stuck trying to solve a problem that just won’t give way. Sometimes it goes on for hours, and the harder you work at it the less progress you seem to make.

Accountants have numbers that don’t add up. Sales executives have deals that just won’t close. Scientists have experiments that refuse to turn out right.

Amateur or professional, journeyman or genius, it happens to all of us at one point or another – no matter our field of expertise or level of experience.

Even Michelangelo struggled for years with frescos that did not hold their color, or marble blocks that shattered unexpectedly at the stroke of his chisel.

Years ago, one of my colleagues (let’s call him Chris) found an original if rather eccentric way of dealing with this kind of problem. He was a talented software developer, responsible not only for writing computer programs, but also for fixing them when they broke.

One time Chris struggled for days with an intractable software problem. Out of frustration he broke his usual pattern of solitary reflexion, and chatted about it with some colleagues. They were equally perplexed, and unable to offer any suggestions. However, when Chris returned to his desk, he suddenly saw the solution with total clarity.

By talking about the problem to other people, he had somehow modified his perception of it, and was able to break through to a solution. Interestingly, this was not a one-off experience. He was able to repeat it, and started to get a reputation for solving software errors faster than most.

At a certain point Chris realized that this shift in perception was not due to the people he spoke to, but rather to the fact that he externalized his problem, stating it in terms that were different from his thought patterns when considering the issue inside his own head.

Here’s the eccentric bit – when he realized that the process itself was more important than the participants, he brought a rubber elephant to work and placed it on his desk. The rubber elephant became his long-suffering audience, and Chris continued to solve many software issues without having to bore his colleagues every time he needed a sounding board.

So there it is, the Rubber Elephant Effect.

Thanks to my colleague Chris (he’s real by the way, and will recognize himself if he reads this), when I get stuck on a problem that I cannot solve, I quickly look for a way to change my perception of the problem. Often this means getting other people involved, but sometimes I just go for a run instead, or maybe even sleep on it – answers have been known to come at 3 am.

I never took the leap of faith to try the true Rubber Elephant Effect, but if you have a good toy store nearby you might find that it works for you!

(image courtesy of Armando Maynez)


The Strange Voyage of War

On February 11, 2010, in Miscellaneous, by Robert Dallison

Thought of the day… May every statesman ponder these timeless words by Winston Churchill.

“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”

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