Plus Two More

In my previous post on five architectures that changed the world I left out a couple that didn’t fit my self-imposed criteria. Here, therefore, are two more, the first of which is a bit too techie to be a part of everyone’s lives but is nonetheless hugely important and the second of which has not changed the world yet but has pretty big potential to do so.

IBM System/360
Before the System/360 there was very little interchangeability between computers, even from the same manufacturers. Software had to be created for each type of computer making them very difficult to develop applications for as well as maintain. The System/360 practically invented the concept of architecture as applied to computers in that it had an architecture specification that did not make any assumptions on the implementation itself, but rather describes the interfaces and the expected behavior of an implementation. The System/360 was the first family of computers designed to cover the complete range of applications, from small to large, both commercial and scientific. The development of the System/360 cost $5 billion back in 1964, that’s $34 billion of today’s money and almost destroyed IBM.

Unless you are American you had probably never heard of the TV game show called Jeopardy! up until the start of 2011. Now we know that it is a show that “uses puns, subtlety and wordplay” that humans enjoy but which computers would get tied up in knots over. This, it turns out, was the challenge that David Ferrucci, the IBM scientist who led the four year quest to build Watson, had set himself to compete live against humans in the TV show.

IBM has “form” on building computers to play games! The previous one (Deep Blue) won a six-game match by two wins to one with three draws against world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. Chess, it turns out, is a breeze to play compared to Jeopardy! Here’s why.

  •  §Is a finite, mathematically well-defined search space.
  • Has a large but limited number of moves and states.
  • Makes everything explicit and has unambiguous mathematical rules which computers love.

Games like Jeopardy! play on the subtleties of the human language however which is…

  • Ambiguous, contextual and implicit.
  • Grounded only in human cognition.
  • Can have a seemingly infinite number of ways to express the same meaning.

According to IBM Watson is “built on IBM’s DeepQA technology for hypothesis generation, massive evidence gathering, analysis, and scoring.” Phew! The point of Watson however is not its ability to play a game show but in the potential to “weaves its fabric” into the messiness of our human lives where data is not kept in nice ordered relational databases but is unstructured and seemingly unrelated but nevertheless can sometimes have new and undiscovered meaning. One obvious application is in medical diagnosis but it could also be used in a vast array of other situations from help desks through to sorting out what benefits you are entitled to. So, not world changing yet but definitely watch this space.

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