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How elementary is ‘Watson’? IBM seeks to find

IBM’s Watson beat champions of Jeopardy,the American quiz show,two years ago

Written by New York Times |
March 10, 2013 2:12:44 am

IBM’s Watson beat champions of Jeopardy,the American quiz show,two years ago. But can it whip up something tasty in the kitchen?

That is just one of the questions that IBM is asking as it tries to expand its artificial intelligence technology and turn Watson into something that actually makes commercial sense.

The new Watson projects—some on the cusp of commercialisation,others still research initiatives—are at the leading edge of a much larger business for IBM and other technology companies. That market involves helping corporations,government agencies and science laboratories find useful insights in a rising flood of data from many sources—Web pages,social network messages,sensor signals,medical images,patent filings,location data from cellphones and others.

Advances in several computing technologies have opened this market,now called Big Data,and a key one is the software techniques of artificial intelligence like machine learning.

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IBM has been building this business for years with acquisitions and internal investment. Today,the company says it is doing Big Data and analytics work with more than 10,000 customers worldwide. Its workforce includes 9,000 business analytics consultants and 400 mathematicians.

Yet the Watson initiatives,analysts say,represent pioneering work. With some of those applications,like suggesting innovative recipes,Watson is starting to move beyond producing Jeopardy-style answers to investigating the edges of human knowledge to guide discovery.

“That’s not something we thought of when we started with Watson,” said John E Kelly III,IBM’s senior vice president for research.


John Baldoni,senior vice president for technology and science at GlaxoSmithKline,got in touch with IBM shortly after watching Watson’s Jeopardy triumph. He was struck that Watson frequently had the right answer,he said,“but what really impressed me was that it so quickly sifted out so many wrong answers.”

That is a huge challenge in drug discovery,which amounts to making a high-stakes bet,over years of testing,on the success of a chemical compound. The failure rate is high. Improving the odds,Baldoni said,could have a huge payoff economically and medically.

Glaxo and IBM researchers put Watson through a test run. They fed it all the literature on malaria,known anti-malarial drugs and other chemical compounds. Watson correctly identified known anti-malarial drugs and suggested 15 other compounds as potential drugs to combat malaria.


“It doesn’t just answer questions; it encourages you to think more widely,” said Catherine E Peishoff,vice president for computational and structural chemistry at Glaxo. “It essentially says,Look over here,think about this. That’s one of the exciting things about this technology.”

In San Jose,IBM plans to serve the assembled analysts a breakfast pastry devised by Watson,called a Spanish crescent. It is a collaboration of Watson’s software and James Briscione,a chef instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan.

IBM researchers have watched and talked to Briscione as he works,selecting ingredients and building dishes. Watson has read those notes,20,000 recipes,data on the chemistry of food ingredients and ratings of flavours people like in categories like “olfactory pleasantness”.

Watson’s assignment has been to come up with recipes that both are novel and taste good. In the case of the breakfast pastry,Watson was told to come up with something inspired by Spanish cuisine but unusual and healthy. The computer-ordered ingredients include cocoa,saffron,black pepper,almonds and honey—but no butter,Watson’s apparent nod to healthier eating.

Then,Briscione,working with those ingredients,had to adjust portions and make the pastry. “If I could have used butter,it would have been a lot easier,” said the chef,who used vegetable oil instead.


Michael Karasick,director of IBM’s Almaden lab,had one of the Spanish crescents for breakfast recently. “Pretty good”,was his scientific judgment.

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First published on: 10-03-2013 at 02:12:44 am

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