IBM's Watson Should Rejuvenate Open Source AI

by Ostatic Staff - Feb. 17, 2011

Unless you've been under a rock for the past week, you had to have caught the remarkable performance of IBM's Watson intelligent computer, which has beaten the two best players in the history of the show Jeapordy, and caused people to herald "our new computer overlords." From the Beatles song Elenoar Rigby to the obscure title of a Bram Stoker novel, Watson pulled obscure and arcane bits of trivia out of its database with incredible speed and accuracy, causing many people in the artificial intelligence (AI) community to pronounce it a milestone in AI. Futurist Ray Kurzweil and tech journalists alike have heralded Watson as a step toward the kinds of intelligent machines that could revolutionize the world. The open source community should be paying close attention to all of this.

Praise for Watson's performance on Jeapordy, where it not only beat but completely dusted off the best human competition has been extensive. PC Mag says:

"Watson makes our PCs look bad."

Noted futurist Ray Kurzweil says:

"Humans...have been unique in our ability to think in a hierarchical fashion, to understand the elaborate nested structures in language, to put symbols together to form an idea, and then to use a symbol for that idea in yet another such structure. This is what sets humans apart.That is, until now. Watson is a stunning example of the growing ability of computers to successfully invade this supposedly unique attribute of human intelligence."

And PCMag's John Dvorak--also impressed with Watson--makes a very good point when he says that AI research has gone on for years, but good researchers often leave their pursuits in the field to go off and make money:

"I've heard this all before. The big push towards artificial intelligence (AI) took place in the early 1980s and fell out of favor because the experts promised more than they could ever deliver. One of the probable reasons for the delay in finally seeing a Watson-like product was that the AI community was marginalized. Many schools dropped the study of AI. Great minds began to think about other things—like things that could make money—and this must have delayed Watson."

Exactly. I've talked to top roboticists who say that the world could easily have the kinds of advanced robotic beings seen in movies such as Blade Runner, but there is no funding. The best AI researchers and roboticists often end up pursuing things that lead down a money trail rather than making machines smarter without a specific commercial goal in mind. So, it makes perfect sense for the open source community--unfettered by commercial interests--to jump in and try to beat Watson. Just look at the incredible accomplishments from the open source community in the field of robotics. I'm looking for the open source community's Watson-beater, which would be an incredible tech milestone.

For a really interesting look at the technology behind Watson, take a look at Stephen Wolfram's comparison (he's the man behind Mathematica and much more) of the Wolfram Alpha online question answering engine and Watson.