Remember IBM’s Watson? He’s Still Here.

The celeb computer is branching out from game shows to medical and financial analysis

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As Westchester celebrities go, it’s big. Its three television appearances drew record ratings. It has more than 40,000 likes on Facebook and roughly 28,000 followers on Twitter. It has its own Wikipedia page and its own YouTube channel. But what has Watson, the IBM supercomputer that famously trounced its Jeopardy! opponents in 2011, been up to lately? 

Watson actually was designed for work, not play. And in the two-plus years since the computer’s Jeopardy! triumph, IBM has been forming collaborations in the healthcare, retail, and financial-services industries to develop commercial applications for the computer’s technology. IBM hopes that Watson, the result of the work of 25 research scientists over the course of four years, will eventually earn far more than prize money.

Jeopardy! was the perfect showcase for Watson’s potential in the world of artificial intelligence. It gave IBM engineers a high-profile (and entertaining) platform to demonstrate how it could understand the nuances of natural language, and sort through masses of information to come up with logical answers to questions. 

To understand Watson’s breakthrough technology, you need to think about the subtleties of how people actually speak. Traditional computing systems can’t understand all of the idiosyncrasies and expressions people use in everyday language. Think about it: Why are “a wise man” and “a wise guy” opposites, while a “slim chance” and a “fat chance” are the same thing? Why do noses run and feet smell? Why do houses burn down but their contents burn up? These idioms may be something that a human child can pick up naturally, but programming a computer to recognize and understand this no easy task.