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Icons of Progress

A Computer Called Watson

When you’re looking for an answer to a question, where do you turn? If you’re like most people these days, you go to a computer, phone or mobile device, and type your question into a search engine. You’re rewarded with a list of links to websites where you might find your answer. If that doesn’t work, you revise your search terms until able to find the answer. We’ve come a long way since the time of phone calls and visits to the library to find answers.

But what if you could just ask your computer the question, and get an actual answer rather than a list of documents or websites? Question answering (QA) computing systems are being developed to understand simple questions posed in natural language, and provide the answers in textual form. You ask “What is the capital of Russia?” The computer answers “Moscow,” based on the information that has been loaded into it.

IBM took this one step further, developing the Watson computer to understand the actual meaning behind words, distinguish between relevant and irrelevant content, and ultimately demonstrate confidence to deliver precise final answers. Because of its deeper understanding of language, it can process and answer more complex questions that include puns, irony and riddles common in natural language. On February 14–16, 2011, IBM’s Watson computer was put to the test, competing in three episodes of Jeopardy! against the two most successful players in the quiz show’s history: Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.