Watson takes on Congress
March 1st, 2011
08:35 AM ET
11 years ago

Watson takes on Congress

Washington (CNN) - Some brave - and curious - members of Congress made their way over to a Capitol Hill hotel Monday evening to square off against a recent "Jeopardy!" sensation named Watson, the IBM-powered supercomputer who handily defeated the game show's two most successful contestants in history.

IBM invited the congressmen to an informal game of Jeopardy! in order to demonstrate the computer's technology, called "automatic, open domain question answering," which returns answers to complex queries in "natural language," providing users with better access to "unstructured information," said IBM Research scientist Dr. Eric Brown.

Brown, a member of the 25-person team that developed Watson, hosted the congressional contest Monday night.

In the first round, Rep. Rush Holt, D-New Jersey, and Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, sparred with (a slightly slower version of) the computer, appearing in its now-familiar avatar form, although Watson quickly delighted the crowd of IBM employees and congressional staffers with his quick, human-like answers.

When given the clue, "Ambrose Bierce described this as a temporary insanity cured by marriage," for example, Watson beat both congressmen to the buzzer, answering confidently, "What is love?"

Holt, a five-time Jeopardy! champion, managed to hold his own against Watson for most of the round, but even he could not match Watson's quick wit in the "Always in Fashion" category. In fairness though, perhaps Watson was at an (even) higher advantage in this city, which is known more for its political savvy than its fashion prowess.

After beating Watson $8,600 to $6,200, Holt expressed admiration for the machine, saying the technology has the potential to be extremely useful in situations that require tough decision-making, such as medical diagnosis, air traffic control, and situations that require piecing together bits of knowledge.

Such technology can also be extremely helpful in emergencies, like an outbreak of a food-borne illness or a natural disaster, said Chris Padilla, vice president of IBM Governmental Programs.

"In the modern world, we're all flooded with information," Padilla said. "What Watson can do, is go through all of that data, and in response to a natural language question, rank the order of likely responses in terms of what you asked it in the first place."

In the case of a food borne illness, Watson could "evaluate all the symptoms people are experiencing, help you evaluate what the various causes could be, and determine what types of controls should be put in place in terms of certain food not being sold," Padilla said.

Brown said his team is close to getting the technology to a point where it is ready for everyday use in the worlds of business and government. But for now, we can continue to enjoy watching Watson show off his formidable trivia skills.

Filed under: Congress
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Matt

    They should try feeding in the Tea Party platform – maybe Watson can find some particle of sense in there. Although it's more likely to lead to a 70s-style "DOES NOT COMPUTE" scene...

    March 1, 2011 08:44 am at 8:44 am |
  2. RKN

    So, Could Watson replace Congress? At least the republicans.
    Maybe it could provide some ideas for solving the variety of problems we face and see further into the future consequences of those actions.

    March 1, 2011 08:53 am at 8:53 am |
  3. bearced

    My question for Watson would be " Can you prove or disprove that lowering taxes for wealthy helps create jobs and improves the economy?"

    March 1, 2011 09:19 am at 9:19 am |
  4. Oy Vey Az

    And the conclusion drawn? ... Watson for congress by a landslide.

    March 1, 2011 10:04 am at 10:04 am |
  5. Limbaugh is a liberal

    Of course, conservatives quickly are trying to build a computer that links solely to conservapedia as well as the RNC's website, to show the public that computers come up with the 'logical 'right' answers.

    March 1, 2011 10:25 am at 10:25 am |
  6. Peter E

    Yes, we all like computers' ability to quickly process a lot of data and come up with an objective evaluation... until that objective evaluation turns out to hurt us. Or when the 'data' is manipulated by programmers to guarantee certain outcomes.

    March 1, 2011 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  7. diridi

    I still did not understand, what is this computer thingie????????

    March 1, 2011 10:52 am at 10:52 am |