IBM's Watson takes star turn at the Computer History Museum

Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum got a dash of star power Tuesday when it welcomed the “Jeopardy” champion of champions, IBM’s Watson.

Somewhere you’ve got to figure Ken Jennings is getting sweaty palms.

In a move that says computing can be fun — even when you’re having your behind handed to you by a box of circuits — the Mountain View museum showed off a new exhibit featuring the original “Jeopardy” set used in 2011 when Watson took on champions Jennings and Brad Rutter in a battle of man vs. machine.

Machine won. By a lot.

“Please take care of our child,” John Kelly III, IBM’s director of research, told museum CEO John Hollar at an opening ceremony that was marred only by the absence of Alex Trebek. (On second thought maybe we were better off.)

The two men stood behind the familiar Jeopardy podiums, complete with buzzers, across from an interactive display that will allow museum goers to play Watson in a simulated “Jeopardy” game. (If you’re wondering, I did. It did not go well.)

Here’s a trip down memory lane with Watson on “Jeopardy.”

“I think it was brilliant strategy by IBM … to have a computer play on ‘Jeopardy’,” Hollar said. And it was fairly brilliant strategy for the museum to land the exhibit.

The display is meant to entertain, sure, but the big idea is to bring attention and something tangible to the idea of cognitive computing, the notion that computers can learn.

After the brief ceremony, IBM’s Kelly said that humans are just at the very beginning of a new era of computing. Think of Watson, he said, as analogous to the 360 computer that IBM introduced in the mid-1960s — a mind-boggling machine at the time that was really a first step. (And also a machine that is a few dozen steps away from the Watson set at the computer museum.)

“There are going to be 50 years of cognitive systems that build upon its base,” Kelly said of the computer he introduced on “Jeopardy” in 2011.

“Jeopardy” seemed the perfect test, Kelly said, for the team developing Watson. It was a tough problem — teaching a computer natural language. The computer’s game performance would be a clear, measurable indicator of whether or not the machine was getting smarter.

“It provided a target for us,” Kelly said of seeking world domination on “Jeopardy.” “In and of itself, it was a scientific data set. And we also thought it was important to capture the imagination of the world.”

That it did. There is no better way to become famous in America, of course, than to appear on T.V.; and Watson became a household name. The appearance allowed viewers to develop warm and fuzzy feeling about a cold piece of technology.

This week, however, has been a bit of a roller coaster ride for IBM’s pop icon. Sure, there were the cheers at the museum on Tuesday. But on Saturday, the New York Times, citing an unnamed consultant, reported that the National Security Agency and the CIA have been testing Watson in the last two years in connection with massive data-gathering initiatives like PRISM. 

“We don’t talk about any of our customers” Kelly said politely. “And obviously, we obey all laws.”

But back to Watson as a “Jeopardy” champ. Kelly remembers the machine’s game show debut well.

“These are the original stage sets,” he said, strolling through the exhibit. “I remember it like it was yesterday.”

Was he nervous?

“I said, ‘It’s not a matter of if a system like this is going to beat human beings. It’s a matter of when.’”

He wasn’t sure it was going to be that night, but it turns out he needn’t have worried. In fact, Watson hasn’t lost a step. Just ask Hollar, who took on the machine at the museum.

“I got one question right,” he said. “Watson knows a lot about baseball and a lot about the weather.”

Oh, the question? In the category “Chief Justices,” the question (or answer in “Jeopardy” speak) was about a chief justice who chaired a special committee and ended up calling more than 500 witnesses.

Watson’s response (and yes, it was in the form of a question): What was the Warren Commission?

The right answer: “Who was Earl Warren?”

Don’t say SiliconBeat doesn’t teach you anything.

(Photo courtesy of IBM, through the Associated Press)

 

Mike Cassidy Mike Cassidy (173 Posts)

I write about the culture of Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury News.