What is Artificial Intelligence?

I ask the question because everything on Jeopardy! is in the form of a question, and because I’m excited to hear that IBM’s Watson will be invited to challenge Jeopardy! winners in a special event. In a nutshell, Watson is a system IBM has been working on to answer human-language questions. To develop its algorithms, they’ve fed Watson lots of information and then test his recall of information by playing Jeopardy!

The NY Times Magazine article gives a great introduction to answering these types of artificial intelligence questions, explaining that it uses a series of algorithms to rank possible answers with a level of confidence. If it doesn’t have a high enough confidence he won’t answer a question. If he takes too long assessing possible answers, a human opponent may beat him to the buzzer.

Jeopardy! is the perfect game for this. Aside from being a fun test of knowledge and trivia, it requires Watson to think quickly. The previously-linked NY Times article does a good job comparing it to other systems, such as the fictional computer from Star Trek which can answer questions quickly and precisely, or Wolfram Alpha, which is dubbed an “answer engine” but answers different types of problems.

My own interest in artificial intelligence began when I checked out a book from the library as an elementary student about programming games in BASIC. The book gave examples of the code and showed what it did, so I typed everything in to create my own basketball game. Of course I thought the game wasn’t good enough, so I added a few extra features, but I began to see the way that computers think. In more recent years I’ve taken formal courses in AI in grad school, where I wrote a program to run the bullpen of the Kansas City Royals.

Watson is certainly miles ahead of my simple bullpen manager, but it’s a good example of the progress that’s been made in the field of artificial intelligence. There are plenty of examples of good AI programs out there, from video game simulations to systems that assist doctors when they want to prescribe medicine, but just like the chess-playing computer Deep Blue, Watson’s Jeopardy! games represent progress toward a great goal: building a machine that can think like a human.