Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Language, Artificial Intelligence and WATSON - the new super-computer Jeopardy Champion

This week’s Jeopardy IBM challenge pitted two human super-champions (Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter) against a custom-designed IBM super-computer named Watson. The game was intended to showcase machine capability not just for fast hard-core calculation but also for softer but equally complex skills like language processing. Thanks to the publicity in several media channels, I managed to catch the second and third game of the three-day series. Curiously enough, I found myself in an Us-and-Them mode, rooting for the human players (who of course lost thoroughly to the machine). 

It has been 42 years since Stanley Kubrick introduced the fictional super-computer HAL in 2001 Space Odyssey that was perfected to a human-like complexity to display emotion and language processing ability well beyond its artificial intelligence. The ongoing quest to develop a real-life HAL remains an evolving goal, although IBM seems to make that goal one of its promotional targets, while providing some entertainment to us.

First was the introduction of Deep Blue in 1996 to play chess against grand master Gary Kasparov. There was, however little human about Deep Blue, its chess moves still came from brute force computation of established rules.  Even that achievement remains embroiled in controversy. Kasparov, who lost complained of unfair human intervention by IBM to reprogram the machine during game.

Introduction of Watson on Jeopardy’s stage has passed without any such controversy. The human competitors seemed to gracefully accept its lightning speed and its agility with the buzzer. In fact one of them added the following sub-text to the final jeopardy response “I for one welcome our new computer overlord”

Over and beyond our cognitive abilities, language with its puns, metaphors, analogies, double meanings represents a core human attribute. One that gives expression to our personality, attitude and perhaps to more abstract concepts like our consciousness. In fact, voice and language abilities are often used to give human characteristics to animals or other natural objects in art, literature, movies. Computer scientists have even defined a “Turing Test” (named after Alan Turing) to judge a machine’s intelligence by testing its natural language or conversational abilities. An electronic system is said to have passed the Turing Test if its conversation is indistinguishable from that of humans.

With its stacks of ninety servers and instantaneous ability to process text of the answer, Watson's victory was not much in question. More significant part of the game probably was the few rare clues where Watson faltered. One example was a clue on what Shengen treaty opened up (I’m paraphrasing) – Watson’s response “Passport” was related but not quite the correct contextual one – “National Border”.  Probably the real-life machine still has some work cut out to pass the Turing test !

Regardless of those rare faux paus, Watson definitely represents a milestone for computational progress at processing natural language and parsing convoluted statements often with multiple meanings. We sure are making progress to the day when we may have “Turing Test” compliant appliances, cars and droids that would interact more “humanly” with us. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Can two turkeys make an Eagle? The curious alliance between Microsoft and Nokia….

All technology news columns today headlined the alliance between Microsoft & Nokia – the two old giants, respectively in software and hardware who so far individually failed to make a dent in the hot and raging US smartphone market.

The tweet from a Google executive, as reported in Wall Street Journal (Feb 12, 2001) was pretty clear – “Two turkeys do not make an eagle”. Interesting comment, but perhaps a little too early.

Those using a smartphone (i.e. those portable computers that run nifty apps and also doubles as a phone) know that the market here in US is largely a “Trio-poly” – dominated  by iPhone, Blackberry and Google with its band of phone makers running Android operating system.

Nokia is a dominant phone maker in he rest of the globe with its own OS – Symbian. These Symbian phones still have the biggest market share outside the US. In fact in many developing countries, Nokia is synonymous with mobile phone, just like Xerox was once synonymous with photocopy. Yet Nokia’s smartphones did not quite click in the US and its eco-system of apps, based on Symbian never quite caught on.

Microsoft had a similar story from the software side. As this tech dinosaur continues to have a thriving cash cow in its continuous re-incarnations of Windows OS, its forays in to successful hardware so far is limited to Xbox gaming system. Its repeated attempts at music player (Zune) and phones so far did not quite pan out.

Enter Stephen Elop, the new Nokia CEO, freshly harvested in to Nokia from Microsoft who promptly goes in to action, quickly pushes Nokia in to bed with his previous employer. In the process, Nokia is also sidelining, not just Symbian but  MeeGo, the budding open OS it was sponsoring specifically for smarphones.

On paper, the alliance is complementary and hence should be promising. One lacks a successful hardware platform and the other needs an OS that could pull it in to the upper echelons of smartphone market. Success or failure, the unfolding story would certainly be a sure-shot entry in to the case-studies that business schools love to teach in their strategy courses.