Using an exquisitely sensitive probe, scientists at IBM have succeeded in making an image of where a single molecule’s positive and negative charges lie. The molecule in question is X-shaped naphthalocyanine, which can switch back and forth between two different configurations when voltage is applied to it, and which IBM has used in its research into tiny logic switches. It was this shift and its accompanying change in the distribution of the molecule’s charge that the researchers chose to investigate. In the image above, red indicates where the electrical field between the probe and molecule was positive, and blue indicates negative. As scientists and engineers look into building molecule-sized transistors and other electronic devices, being able to detect exactly where a molecule’s charge is and how chemical reactions change it will be invaluable.
Image courtesy of IBM Research
One of IBM’s prototype cognitive computing chips
What’s the News: Researchers at IBM have developed a new “cognitive computing” microchip inspired by the brain’s computational tricks. These new chips, the researchers say, could make processors that are more powerful and more efficient than today’s computers—and better at the flexible learning and responses that are a struggle for current AI systems but a breeze for the human brain.
The scores (and the facial expressions of the beleaguered humans) say it all: Last night on Jeopardy, IBM’s Watson supercomputer completed its dominating victory over former champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. The carbon-based life forms managed a few correct answers during the final game of the three-day match, but not nearly enough to overcome Watson’s smarts and speed.
Facing certain defeat at the hands of a room-size IBM computer on Wednesday evening, Ken Jennings, famous for winning 74 games in a row on the TV quiz show, acknowledged the obvious. “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords,” he wrote on his video screen. [The New York Times]
Jennings, who spent much of the three-day extravaganza grimacing with frustration at not being able to buzz in ahead of Watson, wrote up his experiences for Slate today. Once the machine acquired the human skill of parsing Jeopardy questions, he writes, there was really no stopping it. If Watson knew the correct response, it was going to ring in first.
Perhaps even a supercomputer needs a little time to get loosened during a big performance. After an admirable but not perfect round of Jeopardy on Monday in which it finished tied for the lead, IBM‘s Watson computer crushed human champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on Tuesday’s episode and takes a huge lead into the final episode tonight.
Last night’s play began with Watson and Rutter at $5,000 apiece, with Jennings trailing at $2,000. After Watson’s dominance, last night’s show ended with the machine having tallied $35,734 to $10,400 for Rutter and $4,800 for Jennings.
Watson elegantly saw off the puny humans with responses on the likes of Franz Liszt, dengue fever, violin, Rachmaninoff and albinism. Even host Alex Trebek seemed spent: with Watson wanting to wage the extremely specific amount of $6,435 on a Daily Double, the laconic Trebek simply replied, “I won’t ask” (naturally, Watson was spot on here too). [TIME]
Though Watson steamrolled the best competition humanity could provide, its foibles are as telling as its dominance—especially when the seemingly unstoppable machine makes mistakes that would be laughable from a human contestant.
Watson’s one notable error came right at the end, when it was asked to name the city that features two airports with names relating to World War II. Jennings and Rutter bet almost all their money on Chicago, which was the correct answer. Watson went for Toronto. Even so, the error showed another side to Watson’s intelligence: knowing that it was unsure about the answer, the machine wagered less than $1000 on its answer. [New Scientist]
NOTE: Before tonight’s big match begins, check out our feature, “Who’s Smarter, a Human or a Computer? Round 9: Jeopardy,” on the other human games that AI programmers have tried to perfect—and the ones where humans maintain the advantage.
I can already hear the Jeopardy theme music (which isn’t my ringtone, I swear!). Tonight, one of the highest-profile man versus machine contests in years begins, as Jeopardy will air the matches pitting former flesh-and-blood champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter against Watson, the question-and-answer supercomputer by IBM.
Since traveling to IBM’s research center for the practice/demonstration match (which Watson led when play stopped after 15 clues), we here at DISCOVER have been simultaneously excited for the match and anxious about the prospects for our species’ chosen representatives to come out on top. Jennings apparently feels the same way:
Live, from IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center: This is Jeopardy!
Today, IBM rolled out its Jeopardy-playing computer, a whiz machine named Watson that was four years in the works. In today’s demonstration match for the media Watson played against Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, the two great (human) Jeopardy champions who will provide opposition for Watson in a two-day exhibition match. That man versus machine faceoff will air in February, and carries a prize of a million dollars. Bad news, humans: In today’s exhibition of about 15 questions, Watson tallied $4,400, compared to $3,400 for Jennings and $1,200 Rutter.
On stage, Watson was represented by a screen displaying its avatar (pictured) behind a podium, where a human player’s torso would be. Its avatar is a mobile graphic of the Earth with aurora-like lines swirling around it. When Watson was confident in its answer those swirls were shaded green; when it wasn’t they turned an orange hue. The questions were fed in plain text to Watson, but it had to wait the same amount of time to ring in as the human players did. To make the game fair, it also had to trigger a mechanical signaling button. Watson spoke in a stilted computerized voice–and was almost never wrong.
The machine started off on a roll in the category “Chicks Dig Me,” about women and archaeology. Jehrico. Agatha Christie. Mary Leakey. Crete. Watson fired off the answers so quickly it looked like it might blow its puny human competition off the stage. Fortunately for our species pride, Ken and Brad recovered with some right answers of their own.
Is the human brain in final jeopardy?
Last April IBM announced its newest plan to crush humans in the gaming sphere: After taking us to task at chess, it would conquer us at “Jeopardy!” Since then the game show-playing robot, Watson, has been in development (cue 80’s training montage featuring computer programmers). J-Day approaches, and this fall the battle should commence.
In a lengthy New York Times Magazine feature on Watson this week, some of the details of the match became clear. It will take place this fall on national television.
Watson will not appear as a contestant on the regular show; instead, “Jeopardy!” will hold a special match pitting Watson against one or more famous winners from the past. If the contest includes Ken Jennings — the best player in “Jeopardy!” history, who won 74 games in a row in 2004 — Watson will lose if its performance doesn’t improve. It’s pretty far up in the winner’s cloud, but it’s not yet at Jennings’s level… The show’s executive producer, Harry Friedman, will not say whom it is picking to play against Watson, but he refused to let Jennings be interviewed for this story, which is suggestive [The New York Times].
If you’ve always yearned for “Jeopardy!” to feature the same kind of obsessive game-planning and secrecy as professional sports, this is your time. While folks on the show’s side won’t reveal the human contestants, the folks on the IBM side are busy testing Watson against humanity in mock “Jeopardy!” games. They even found a fake Alex Trebek (and no, it’s not Will Ferrell).
I.B.M.’s scientists began holding live matches last winter. They mocked up a conference room to resemble the actual “Jeopardy!” set, including buzzers and stations for the human contestants, brought in former contestants from the show and even hired a host for the occasion: Todd Alan Crain, who plays a newscaster on the satirical Onion News Network [The New York Times].
In the hot desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia, finding fresh drinking water has always been a great challenge. For decades now, the state has been providing clean water by converting millions of gallons of seawater via desalination plants that remove salts and minerals from the water. Now the country plans to use one of its most abundant resources to counter its fresh-water shortage: sunshine [Technology Review].
Working on a joint project with IBM, Saudi Arabia’s national research group King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) has announced that it will open the world’s largest solar-powered desalination plant by 2012 in the city of Al-Khafji. The pilot plant will not just supply 30,000 cubic meters of clean water per day to 100,000 people, but will also reduce operating costs in the long run by harvesting energy from sunshine. Saudi Arabia, the top desalinated water producer in the world, uses 1.5 million barrels of oil per day at its plants, according to Arab News [Technology Review].
100 gigahertz of processing power—not bad for a single sheet of atoms.
In a paper in Science, researchers at IBM say they have created the fastest-ever graphene transistor, with a cut-off frequency (the highest it can go without significant signal degradation) that at 100 GHz is nearly four times higher than their previous attempt. Similar silicon-based transistors have only been able to reach a turtle-like clock rate of about 40 GHz, or 40 billion cycles per second.
An artificial brain as powerful as a human’s remains a distant goal, but scientists are inching closer. This week IBM announced that by using a brain-simulating algorithm called BlueMatter, researchers created an artificial brain simulation that packs more brainpower than a cat.
Researchers used an IBM supercomputer at the Lawrence Livermore Lab to model the movement of data through a structure with 1 billion neurons and 10 trillion synapses, which allowed them to see how information “percolates” through a system that’s comparable to a feline cerebral cortex [San Jose Mercury News]. The team’s previous effort two years ago, modeled after a rat brain, simulated only about 55 million neurons.
The staggering surge in computing power has engineers like IBM’s Dharmendra Modha drooling over the possibilities for more brain-like computers. By reverse engineering [the] cortical structure, Modha says, researchers could give machines the ability to interpret biological senses such as sight, hearing and touch. And artificial machine brains could process, intelligently, senses that don’t currently exist in the natural world, such as radar and laser range-finding [Popular Mechanics].
It should come as no surprise that the design suggests such military applications, as DARPA provided much of the funding. But like the Internet and other technologies originally developed for the military, BlueMatter’s abilities could lead in a multitude of directions. “As our digital and physical worlds collide, there is a tsunami of information,” Modha said. “There is a need for a new kind of intelligence that can sort through, prioritize and extract the most important information, much like how the brain deals with sight, sounds, tastes, touch and smell” [San Jose Mercury News].
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Image: IBM Almaden research lab, Stanford University