IBM's Watson Boosts Global Supercomputing Effort

Mechanical Jeopardy champ sparks worldwide interest in virtual computing and artificial intelligence.
Inside Watson, IBM's Jeopardy Computer
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Slideshow: Inside Watson, IBM's Jeopardy Computer

Watson, the Jeopardy-playing supercomputer built by IBM, has inspired tech fans around the world to donate their excess compute cycles to a program that loops the power of individual home PCs into a virtual mainframe.

Since Watson bested Jeopardy champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter last week, the number of individuals who contribute compute power to the World Community Grid project has increased 700%, according to IBM.

"Watson's performance on Jeopardy has captured the imagination of millions of viewers who understand the power of computing to benefit humanity," said Stanley Litow, IBM's VP for Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs.

IBM is donating $500,000 to various research projects to help them tap into World Community Grid. Recipients include Help Fight Childhood Cancer, at the Chiba Cancer Center Research Institute in Japan, Discovering Dengue Drugs Together, at the University of Texas Medical Branch and University of Chicago, [email protected], at the Scripps Research Institute, and Computing for Clean Water, at China's Tsinghua University.

World Community Grid launched in 2005. It now receives seven computational results from members' PCs every second of every day while performing operations for research institutions around the world. It consumes only three extra watts of power on host computers.

"Like Watson, World Community Grid is also a game changer. We're grateful for the skyrocketing interest in World Community Grid as a result of Watson's achievement," said Litow.

Watson's cumulative score over two Jeopardy matches was $77,147, compared to $24,000 for Jennings and $21,600 for Rutter. "Watson is fast, knows a lot of stuff, and can really dominate a match," said Jeopardy host Alex Trebek. The system is built on IBM's new POWER7 architecture.

But the computer also showed that even the most advanced AI program can be strikingly fallible at times. On one episode, it drew guffaws from the audience when it answered "Toronto" to a question that asked which city was home to airports named after a World War II hero and a famous WWII battle. Watson, in his soft mechanical voice, named the Canadian city despite the fact the question was under the category "U.S. Cities."

On its Smarter Planet blog, IBM said Watson's training may have led to the error. "Watson, in his training phase, learned that categories only weakly suggest the kind of answer that is expected, and therefore the machine downgrades their significance," IBM said.

IBM says Watson, named after company founder Thomas J. Watson, is much more than a science experiment. Much of the program is built on technology that IBM has already commercialized for applications such as economic modeling, weather forecasting, the prediction of disease vectors, and the tracking of trends in financial markets.

"Beyond our excitement for the match itself, our team is very motivated by the possibilities that Watson's breakthrough computing capabilities hold for building a smarter planet and helping people in their business tasks and personal lives," said David Ferrucci, who leads IBM's Watson team.

Watson simultaneously runs natural language processing, information retrieval, knowledge representation and reasoning algorithms to fathom the intent of questions and yield what it thinks is the best answer—all in a matter of seconds or less. The Watson program runs on IBM's new massively parallel POWER7 processors, which the company rolled out last year.

The shows were taped last month at IBM's research center in Yorktown Heights, NY.


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