Watson in the Clouds

September 24, 2012

I’ve written here several times about IBM’s Watson system, which first gained some public notice as a result of its convincing victory in a Jeopardy! challenge match against two of the venerable game show’s most accomplished human champions.   Since then, IBM has announced initiatives to put Watson to work in a variety of areas, including medical diagnosis, financial services, and marketing.  All of these applications rely on Watson’s ability to process a very large data base of information in natural language, and to use massively  parallel processing to draw inferences from it.  (The Watson system that won the Jeopardy! test match used 10 racks of servers, containing 2880 processor cores, and 16 terabytes of memory.)

Now an article in the New Scientist suggests an intriguing  new possibility for Watson, as a cloud-based service.

Watson, the Jeopardy-winning supercomputer developed by IBM, could become a cloud-based service that people can consult on a wide range of issues, the company announced yesterday.

The details of this are, at this point, fuzzy at best, but making Watson available as a cloud service would certainly make it accessible to a much larger  group of users, given the sizable investment required for a dedicated system.

Because Watson can respond to natural language queries, it is tempting to compare it to other existing systems.  Apple’s Siri, for example, can interpret and respond to spoken requests, but the back-end processor is essentially a search engine.  The Wolfram|Alpha system also responds to natural-language queries, but its ability to deliver answers depends on a structured data base of information, as Dr. Stephen Wolfram has explained.  Watson really is a new sort of system.

All of this is still in the very early stages, of course, but it will be fascinating to see how it develops.

Finding the Higgs Boson

July 7, 2012

I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.
— Richard Feynman, in The Character of Physical Law

As Prof. Feynman, physicist and Nobel laureate, suggests, our intuition tends to be at a loss when we start to study quantum physics, the science of how matter and energy behave at atomic and smaller scales.  And intuition gets hopelessly lost when we get down to the level of particle physics, which tries to describe the most fundamental building blocks of the universe.  Some of these, in the Standard Model of particle physics, we may have at least heard of, like the photon or the electron.  But then there are, for example, the particles called quarks. which make up protons and neutrons (among other things), come in six oddly-named varieties (up, down, strange, charm, top, and bottom), and whose name is a literary allusion to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, perhaps not the first book that would come to mind as a precise description of the physical world.

Until this week, one of the key particles in the Standard Model, the Higgs boson, had never been observed in the wild, though the theoretical prediction of its existence was made almost 50 years ago.   However, as the New Scientist reports, physicists working with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN announced that they had found highly significant evidence of the particle’s existence (it is very short-lived, and thus must be detected from its breakdown products).  The Higgs boson is postulated to be the elementary quantum of the Higgs field, which according to the model is what gives many of the other particles mass.   The Higgs boson was predicted by the theory to be quite massive itself, as elementary particles go, and it weighed in at 125-126 GeV (giga-electron volts), in the range predicted by the theory.  (In particle physics, a particle’s mass is often measured in energy units; as Einstein famously demonstrated, mass and energy are equivalent: E = m c² .)

The Economist also has an interesting article on the discovery.

There is another, more personal, reflection on the discovery at Wired, by Dr. Stephen Wolfram, developer of the Mathematica software package, and of Wolfram|Alpha.  (Readers may remember that I mentioned Dr. Wolfram’s comments on IBM’s Watson project and Jeopardy!.)   I had not known, before reading the article, that Dr. Wolfram has also worked in particle physics.  He considers whether the Higgs discovery is worth the approximately $10 billion it is estimated to have cost.

I think it could be justified almost just for the self-esteem of our species: that despite all our specific issues, we’re continuing a path we’ve been on for hundreds of years, systematically making progress in understanding how our universe works. And somehow there’s something ennobling about seeing what’s effectively a worldwide collaboration of people working together in this direction.

He also compares watching the Higgs announcement to his memories of staying up the watch the Apollo 11 moon landing, an experience I also remember vividly.  The announcement, of course, lacked the obvious drama of the walk on the moon; yet it is still, in a certain sense, the same kind of really new thing that makes science so fascinating.

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