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After 'Jeopardy,' IBM's Watson will be followed by Racr, but how about Skynet? [Video]

February 16, 2011 |  3:26 pm

While IBM's supercomputer Watson is being seen this week competing against some of the best human contestants the game show "Jeopardy" has known, teams of researchers across the country are working on what's next.

After a "Jeopardy" viewing party at USC's Gateway Pass dormitory Tuesday for the second episode of the man vs. machine match with $1 million at stake, USC research associate professor Eduard Hovy spoke with the Technology Blog about the successor to Watson, which may or may not make future TV appearances. The viewing was hosted by IBM and USC's Information Sciences Institute and School of Cinematic Arts.

"USC didn't have a direct role in Watson -- no other institution did," Hovy said. "Now we're working with IBM, and with others, to build the successor to Watson, a new program that does deeper reasoning and inference and intelligent sort of question-answering -- and the system is called Racr."

Watson is basically a software platform built to compete in Jeopardy on top of 15 terabytes of memory and 3,000 processing cores across about 90 banks of IBM Power7 servers -- a grouping of the same type of computers IBM sells to businesses.

Racr -- which is an acronym for reading and contextual reasoning -- will be a software platform much like Watson, named for IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, but it will be able to handle not just simple question-and-answer exercises but also the reading of text in order to record data to its memory and then answer much more complex questions, Hovy said.

"To try to make a system that grows its knowledge and understands how to change and when to change, that's a lot more complex," he said.

On Tuesday night, Watson ended the second episode of the three-show match with a substantial lead over his human competitors. Watson goes into the final round, airing Wednesday night, with $35,734 in winnings, while Brad Rutter is in second place with $10,400 and Ken Jennings has garnered just $4,800 so far.

Watson's performance thus far isn't much of a surprise, Hovy said.

"I think anybody in our field who looked at what was happening was expecting this sooner or later," he said. "It was known that you could do something like this, but that you could do it this quickly and this accurately -- that nobody knew and that's a very great accomplishment."

But Watson is merely a step in the advancement of computing, and Racr will be too, Hovy said.

"There's a series of things coming in the next two decades -- like automatic summarization of texts, like questions that are answered with much longer answers, much more complex kinds of questions, like explanations that are given for things -- all this is coming step by step as developments occur," he said.

So we asked the computer scientist the question that has been burning for many of the Technology Blog's readers and commenters -- are Watson and Racr steps toward the doomsday scenario of Skynet in the "Terminator" films, or will this lead to computers that make our lives better and potentially lazier such as in "The Jetsons"?

"I think if you're afraid of technology this is the path to Skynet," Hovy said. "But if you look and you say, 'You know, technology is there to serve us and it makes our world better. It's better to have a motorcar than a horse carriage. And it's better to have a computer and run your banking affairs than no computer and doing everything very slowly through humans and so on. It's better to have an ATM machine than having to stand in line' -- I think this is a big advance for us."



IBM's Watson on 'Jeopardy': Computer takes big lead over humans in Round 2

IBM's Watson on Jeopardy: Round 1 ends in a tie

-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Video: USC researcher Eduard Hovy on IBM's Watson, "Jeopardy," and what's next. Credit: Nathan Olivarez-Giles/Los Angeles Times

Photo: Watson, powered by racks of IBM Power7 computers, is competing on the TV show Jeopardy against the show's two most successful contestants -- Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter -- in the first-ever man vs. machine competition on the game show. Credit: Bob Goldberg/Feature Photo Service/IBM