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Doug Henschen
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Can The Jeopardy Challenge Help IBM Compete With Apple And Google?

Noted author Stephen Baker says this week's man vs. machine TV contest will help Big Blue attract the best and brightest. Early uses of the technology will show up on cell phones, he predicts.

Publicity Backlash?

As IBM and Jeopardy both hoped, the challenge has generated plenty of publicity. There was a barrage of international news coverage following a January 13 press conference. The social networks have been buzzing ever since, and then on February 9, PBS aired a Nova special entitled "Smartest Machine on Earth: Can a Computer Win on Jeopardy?" No doubt there will be another round of hoopla around this week's episodes and the final outcome.

There are also signs of alarm and a bit of a backlash. Critical social media comments and letters to editors have questioned whether IBM could have put the tens of millions of dollars spent on Watson toward a loftier goal than playing Jeopardy.

But even if the Jeopardy Challenge is "a gimmick and contrivance" that's okay, Baker counters. "So many people now complain that companies are purely driven by quarterly profits and that pure research has faded away or is going into developments that can be monetized immediately. Here's IBM saying, 'We're going to develop a new type of computing that might have all kinds of very useful applications,' so I don't see anything to criticize in that."

Of course, Baker, too, stands to benefit as Jeopardy Challenge publicity will boost sales of his book. But IBM needs the publicity in part because "all the sexy stuff is now being developed by the likes of Apple and Google," Baker says. "To attract investors and top PhD students coming out of the top programs, they want to show them that you can do really cool stuff at IBM. They are competing for those brains."

Watson in the Real World

There's no doubt that IBM has advanced the science of deep question-and-answer technology with an English-language-interpreting interface. But what's to come of this development?

"The question is whether the interface can be hitched to a flexible back-end system that could provide different types of analytics for different industry needs at the right price point," Baker says.

There's no guarantee that IBM will be the company that ends up taking commercial advantage, Baker says.

"My conclusion in the book is that this type of computing is going to spread and it's going to become available through cell phones fairly soon, but Google or Oracle could end up providing these types of analytics," Baker says.

IBM has been playing up possible medical uses, whereby a Watson-like computer becomes a diagnostic aid to doctors. Baker says initial uses are likely to be much more mundane, like powering help-desk software.

As for the fear of computers that the challenge has stoked, IBM and Jeopardy have played that up to add to the fun and spectacle of the event, Baker says. In the real world, he says he has no doubt that the technology will ultimately be used for the benefit of humans.

Inside Watson, IBM's Jeopardy Computer
(click image for larger view)
Slideshow: Inside Watson, IBM's Jeopardy Computer

"Watson is not that smart, but it's very powerful," Baker explains. "It can't make decisions, it doesn't really understand, and it doesn't really think, but it can read through ridiculous amounts of data and come up with possible answers with a known degree of confidence."

Watson often serves up some answers that are way off track, but human experts can discount those," Baker says. "If the technology can come up with two or three good ideas that are interesting and that lead to new lines on inquiry, then the humans would be smart ones to take advantage of the tool."

Need more convincing? Check your local listings to watch Watson and his human counterparts in action on Jeopardy this week.

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