By Jennifer LeClaire / Top Tech News. Updated February 24, 2011.
Watson's success is having a ripple effect at Big Blue. IBM's World Community Grid, a virtual supercomputer that helps scientists solve humanitarian challenges by tapping the unused computing power of personal computers around the world, is turning heads.
The day after the conclusion of TV's Jeopardy tournament, the grid saw a 700 percent spike in the number of people who typically volunteer their spare computing power.
The grid works by pooling the unused power of 1.7 million personal computers from 535,000 volunteers in more than 80 countries. Then it makes this power available to scientists who might not otherwise be able to afford the computing power they require for timely research.
Spurring Humanitarian Research
"Watson's performance on Jeopardy has captured the imagination of millions of viewers who understand the power of computing to benefit humanity," said Stanley S. Litow, an IBM vice president and head of IBM's foundation. "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."
The grid offers computing power equivalent to one of the world's largest virtual supercomputers. It tackles projects like affordable water purification, cancer research, and new treatments for HIV/AIDS. The Scripps Research Institute tapped the grid to discover two new compounds that could be used to design AIDS-fighting drugs.
These scientists won't be talking to Watson, but others might talk to its successors, given the recent IBM deal with Nuance Communications. Still, some analysts say even the best speech-recognition technology has a way to go, in part because even a natural language computer system can fail.
"Crashes are well known, disasters occur unpredictably, and software is anything but perfect," said Dave Mesabi, principal of the Mesabi Group. "In fact, software is known for, as a friend of mine once said, its unmarketable special features, more popularly known as 'bugs.' That simply means that it does not carry out its tasks in the way that the programmer thought it should. Like any system, the Watson system can possibly crash and may well have some latent bugs within it, but that is not the main reason it is fallible."
Mesabi said a natural language computer system is also fallible because it cannot meet the dictionary definition of absolutely trustworthy or sure. That, he continued, is because it may not have all the necessary evidence to make a decision with confidence. A more important reason, though, is that it may not have enough analytical horsepower to make the correct decision even though it thinks it does. Still, Mesabi said how natural language capabilities will change the way we interact with computers is going to be important, because a natural language interface has the potential to become a killer app.
"However, even if that is the case, a natural language computer system will not be infallible, and recognizing that fact is essential in minimizing negative consequences," Mesabi said. "Though the Jeopardy matches were impressive, Watson may have a much greater impact upon the world of information technology than simply providing a vehicle for quickly providing precise answers to complex questions."