Computers aren’t just getting better, they’re getting smarter. Sixteen years ago, a software program beat the reigning chess champion. IBM had spent seven years creating it, and it was time well spent. The victory got the world’s attention and proved that superior computation skills could at least sometimes add up to superior performance.
Two years ago, IBM’s Watson software beat the world’s two best players in the television game show “Jeopardy!” Although “Jeopardy!” is a test of trivia, the victory was anything but trivial. It showed how well artificial intelligence researchers could process ordinary language and extract knowledge from unstructured databases.
Since then, Watson has been put to work learning something a lot less trivial—medical diagnosis. But that’s still a very limited domain—in fact, it’s restricted to cancer diagnoses so far.
But IBM is also looking to the long term. It has given one of the world’s leading AI researchers, at a leading university for AI, an open-ended three-year charter to make Watson smarter.