IBM’s Watson Project a ‘Monumental Feat’

Earlier this year an IBM computer dubbed Watson trounced a pair of former champions on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!

No small feat.

It only came about after a complex project that resident Voices blogger Jim De Piante, PMP called the “single greatest challenge in the history of computer science.”

Mr. De Piante, who served as a project manager on the IBM initiative, talked about Watson’s creation with attendees at PMI® Global Congress 2011 — North America.

The idea to launch the Watson project was spawned by the success of Deep Blue, IBM’s chess-playing computer that won a six-game match against the world champion at the time.

The project scope was deceptively simple: win Jeopardy! But this required “some serious science.” The computer had to understand natural language be able to arrive at a single, precise answer to a question, which was often loaded with quirky clues.

At the start of the project, IBM’s technology could answer in about two hours and it was wrong about 66 percent of the time. Watson had to snip that down to three seconds and get it right 90 percent of the time.

Through an exhaustive series of testing, tweaking, perfecting and testing again, Watson achieved its goal.

Then the team had to figure out how to transport the 9-ton system across the country, from its home in upstate New York, USA to Hollywood, California, USA, where Jeopardy! is taped.

For a number of reasons, Mr. De Piante’s team changed its approach: Instead of Watson going to Hollywood, Hollywood came to Watson. IBM built a “studio” and hired an actor to serve as the host. In the studio, they held “sparring matches,” where Watson practiced against IBM employees and former Jeopardy! contestants. In 55 matches against former Jeopardy! champions, Watson won 39 times.

In the end, what began as an IBM researcher’s far-fetched idea in 2004 was deemed an unequivocal success six years later.

“Winning the Jeopardy! match isn’t why our researchers created Watson,” Mr. De Piante said. “The Jeopardy! match helped make us all aware of a technological marvel, which will radically change the way we interact with computers.”

Mr. De Piante’s presentation also featured five project practitioners playing a round of Jeopardy! against a demonstration version of Watson. The humans were no match for the machine.

See more posts from PMI® Global Congress 2011 — North America.

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