For as long as there has been science fiction to dream up the possibility of computers and robots that could one day rival or even surpass human beings in brain power, there have been people who have worried that these machines will eventually usurp control of the planet from humans and subjugate them.

We’ve finally reached the point where we have a computer — the IBM Watson — that can consistently outsmart human beings, at least in a game of Jeopardy. Now, as Watson is about to move from playing games to solving real world problems, its creators at IBM are assuring us that Watson is going to lend a big assist to humanity, is completely under human control, and doesn’t pose any of the dangers we’ve read about in scifi.

On Wednesday, Watson was at the IdeaFestival conference on global innovation in Louisville, Kentucky. The computer took on two teams of local high school students in a game of Jeopardy and easily prevailed. However, IBM’s David Shepler presaged the Jeopardy game with a 40-minute presentation about Watson to the crowd of entrepreneurs, thought leaders, and innovators at IdeaFestival and he said that Watson’s days as a Jeopardy champion are numbered. It’s time for Watson to start tackling real world problems.

Photo credit: IBM

Where Watson has made a major breakthrough is in processing and interacting with human language, according to Shelper. “Computers have struggled in this area for a long time and frankly they haven’t lived up to expectations,” he said.

However, Watson can now understand language subtleties and implied meanings and make the leaps needed to connect questions with the appropriate answers, and Shepler gave a variety of examples of how this works by comparing it to the way search engines like Google process questions in order to show how much powerful Watson is. It was effective enough that it made me wonder why IBM hasn’t created a search engine of its own, but that’s another story.

If you’ve seen Watson in action in Jeopardy — it has annihilated previous champions —  then you know that Watson actually “talks” in responding to questions. But, Shepler went out of his way to shoot down any scifi paranoia about Watson before it started. “Watson is not a sentient being,” he said. He drove home the point that Watson has been created by a team of IBM engineers and that the intelligence of the system is due to these scientists that created it. He also explained that while a single screen is used to represent Watson, the system is actually more of a data center than a computer. It is made up of the equivalent of 6,000 high-end desktop computers.

As for what Watson is going to do next, Shepler highlighted several areas:

  • Healthcare
  • Life sciences
  • Tech support
  • Enterprise knowledge management
  • Business intelligence
  • Government services

The most prominent commercial project that Watson is about to be involved in is at Wellpoint, where it will help doctors make decisions by processing data and quickly providing analysis. Shepler also made the point that Watson will continue to evolve and improve. He even teased the audience by saying Watson will evolve toward a natural language interface like the one seen in Star Trek’s famous LCARS computer.