So what will Watson bring to the real world once all the publicity dies down? Certainly the achievement would not have been possible without state-of-the art technology. Parallel processing supported the performance, but that's a known architecture that dates back decades. A newer wrinkle here is optimizing particular workloads to run on a parallel architecture. IBM, Oracle and others are now moving up the stack into applications optimized to deliver the ultimate in performance on MPP platforms.
What's truly unique about Watson is the combination of linguistic understanding and analytics. IBM calls it deep question and answer capability, and executives say the first stop for real-world implementation will be in medicine. A Watson-like computer could serve as a doctor's assistant, studying a patient record and descriptions of symptoms and matching them against a vast store of medical knowledge.
Unlike any human, a Watson-like computer could "read" every medical text book and all the latest medical journals. What's more, Watson is capable of multi-modal analysis, so it could interpret an EKG or an XRay image as well as a text book or medical journal.
IBM envisions Watsonian computers taking on challenges in many other domains. "I can't imagine a single industry where there isn't potential to transform it, whether it's the healthcare system, the legal system or any area where need time-sensitive and accuracy-sensitive responses," said Dr. John E. Kelly, senior vice president and director of IBM Research.
Kelly and Ferrucci were hesitant to say how soon Watson innovations might make it into the real world, but if the Deep Blue and Blue Gene projects are any indication, it could be as few as three to five years. The Deep Blue project of early 1990s, for example, advanced clustered processing approaches that advanced the clustered supercomputing platform on which it was built, according to Mark Dean, an IBM Fellow and 30-year company veteran.
And Dean said Blue Gene, a $100 million research initiative IBM launched in 1999, advanced massively parallel processing (MPP) with high-speed messaging between nodes and fault tolerance, the ability to cope with failing nodes and components without bringing the entire computer down. These are hallmarks of the MPP environments of today.
As IBM's Kelly noted, there could be no higher calling than the promise of medical breakthroughs and saving lives, so let's hope the teachings of Watson become elementary within a few short years. In the shorter term, the prizes at stake in the Jeopardy IBM challenge are $1 million for first place, $300,000 for second place and $200,000 for third place. IBM has agreed to give 100% of Watson's winnings and Jennings and Rutter have agreed to give 50% of their winnings to charity. Watson couldn't be more selfless.