What makes IBM's Watson run?

What makes IBM's Watson run?

Summary: As Watson, IBM's Linux-powered computer cluster, gets ready to take on Jeopardy's all-time champs, we're learning more about what makes it tick.


It's looking pretty good for Watson, IBM's Linux-powered computer cluster, as IBM engineers get it ready for its mid-February showdown with Jeopardy's all-time champs, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.  Watson has already won a practice round and Bodog, the online gambling company and odds-maker has made Watson the favorite at 5/6. Even if Watson doesn't win, the mere fact that it can compete at this level is amazing.

How can Watson do it? Here's what I've learned about Watson's hardware and software in the last few days.

According to David Davidian, an IBM Senior System Architect, “Watson is a massively parallel system based on the IBM POWER7 750 in a standard rack mounted configuration.” It can run AIX, IBM's house-brand Unix; IBM I; and Linux. To compete on Jeopardy Watson is running Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server.

Watson is made up of ninety IBM POWER 750 servers, 16 Terabytes of memory, and 4 Terabytes of clustered storage. Davidian sontinued, “This is enclosed in ten racks including the servers, networking, shared disk system, and cluster controllers. These ninety POWER 750 servers have four POWER7 processors, each with eight cores. IBM Watson has a total of 2880 POWER7 cores.”

Just like the human players, Watson has no access to Google or any other outside sources of information. It plays with “what it knows.”

Don't think though that Watson is just a really powerful search engine. It's far more than that.

Watson uses IBM DeepQA software to “understand” natural language questions and answers like those in Jeopardy. Doing this is really the hard trick for Watson and its designers. Humans don't talk or think clearly or logically. To work out what someone means, a computer needs to understand context, slang, puns and a hundred other things that we take for granted when we talk to each other.

DeepQA, Davidian explained, “scales out with and searches vast amounts of unstructured information. Effective execution of this software, corresponding to a less than three second response time to a Jeopardy! question, is not just based on raw execution power. Effective system throughput includes having available data to crunch on. Without an efficient memory sub-system, no amount of compute power will yield effective results. A balanced design is comprised of main memory, several levels of local cache and execution power. IBM's POWER 750's scalable design is capable of filling execution pipelines with instructions and data, keeping all the POWER7 processor cores busy. At 3.55 GHz, each of Watson's POWER7 on-chip bandwidth is 500 Gigabytes per second. The total on-chip bandwidth for Watson's 360 POWER7 processors is an astounding 180,000 Gigabytes per second!”

Speed alone though wouldn't have done the job. It's the sheer speed plus the innovate DeepQA software running on Linux that makes Watson competitive with the human world's Sherlock Holmes of quizzes. Win, lose, or draw, Watson points to a brave new world where we really will be able to 'talk' to our computers and get good answers back.

For more about Watson, before it takes on its human rivals, look to this forthcoming NOVA episode on PBS.

Topics: Linux, CXO, Software, Servers, Processors, Operating Systems, Open Source, IBM, Hardware, IT Employment

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  • RE: What makes IBM's Watson run?

    I can't wait! This is going to be my Super Bowl!
    • RE: What makes IBM's Watson run?

      @drand54@... Agreed! I'm excited to see also
    • RE: What makes IBM's Watson run?


      You can't wait?!? This is the end of the world!
      x I'm tc
  • RE: What makes IBM's Watson run?

    i'm just pissed i wasn't part of the team that made it ;)
    • RE: What makes IBM's Watson run?

      @KBot <br>Do you also want to be part of the group making SkyNet? <img border="0" src="http://www.cnet.com/i/mb/emoticons/happy.gif" alt="happy"> But i do agree, it would have been a wonderfully interesting project on which to be a member.
      • RE: What makes IBM's Watson run?


        "Do you also want to be part of the group making SkyNet?"

        Just work for Google. That is a close as you can get.
  • RE: What makes IBM's Watson run?

    And just think! WATSON is a huge piece of equipment which takes most of a room and requires a small team of humans to move.

    In comparision, the brains used by the human players are carried by themselves in the small space between their ears.

    While I appluad IBMs progress, we still have a very long way to go before we have anything like an AI which is as powerful, as well as, as compact as a human brain.
    • Disagree...

      @mheartwood I completely disagree with this statement. We do not have a long way to go. I would argue that this is right around the corner. Think about it in this way. The first computer was 1936, but look at how things have progressed.


      I would say give it another 20 or 30 years and we will have the first ugly looking robots.
      • RE: What makes IBM's Watson run?


        As long as it's cheap enough to store the memories and personality of middle income IT workers such as my self within 50 years I'll be happy. An ugly robot would probably be an improvement on my brains current chassis.
      • Actually, the AI exhibited by Watson, might be equivalent to that of an ant

        and ants lack intuition and every other human trait and emotions. Machinery or robots are perhaps hundreds of years, or perhaps thousands of years away from emulation of what a human being is. In fact, I doubt it will ever happen. For a machine to be able to do that, it needs to be self-sustainable and self-taught and self-programmable and, if it's going to "pretend" to be "human-like", it needs to exhibit emotions and intuition and it needs to be proactive in everything, rather than reactive and programmed.

        To do what a human can do, intelligence-wise or otherwise, that machine/robot/computer will need it's own DNA with its own DNA helix.

        Everything that Watson, or any other "AI" computer can and will be able to do, is "programmed" into it by humans, and even where it appears to be "learning", that capability is also an emulation and not a behavior.

        So, we're a very, very long way from a robot that can come even close to what a human brain can do.
      • Humans are programmed too...

        @adornoe --<br>Humans are self-taught and self-programmable only because our DNA (programming) makes us that way. Our brains (hardware) and the brains method of operation do not appear out of nowhere.<br><br>Likewise a computer can receive hardware and initial programming comparable to DNA which allows it to learn on its own. Google for "NELL". Visit www.aeyec.com
      • nfordtchrpub: Our DNA is way more complex than a computer could ever be

        and the only thing that a computer could ever be is a machine which attempts to emulate that which our DNA enables us to do.<br><br><i>Humans are self-taught and self-programmable</i><br><br>You're attributing characteristics of machines to humans. Humans cannot learn anything if the capabilities had not already been there through our DNA. We can give machines some characteristics to "emulate" things that a human can do, such as pronouncing and interpreting, and even giving out "intelligent sounding" responses, but, it's not real intelligence in the sense that it's "born with the creature". Notice the word "born". A machine could be said to be born, but, it's born piece by piece, bit by bit, byte by byte, and the "intelligence" that it gets is completely built by humans. It can only learn as far as the capabilities that can be programmed into it, and those capabilities may never get to even approach the capabilities of a human. <br><br><i>only because our DNA (programming) makes us that way.</i><br><br>Yeah, but, don't be so dismissive of the DNA capabilities. The fact is that, there is nothing in the known universe that is more complex than the human DNA. That DNA, if it was an accident of nature, evolved through hundreds of millions of years, and perhaps billions of years. But, perhaps there is a lot more to that DNA than just a natural evolution into its massively complex composition. How did that organic material get "devised" to be able to perform the wondrous things that we can? Accidental "evolution" seems far-fetched. But, I wasn't there to know. <br> <br><i>Our brains (hardware) and the brains method of operation do not appear out of nowhere.</i><br><br>The hardware is the organic material within the brain. The software that makes it function as "intelligence" is what has so many people baffled and trying to emulate it through compounds and switches and electronic memories.<br><br>But, like I said, we can emulate the most basic of human characteristics, but, the thought process of the brain could forever remain out of the reach of scientists and software/hardware developers.<br><br>When software/hardware developers can construct something as magnificent as the DNA strands which define humans, then call me and tell me how they've managed to create "Artificial Intelligence". I'm not saying it couldn't happen, but, it's probably thousands of years beyond us now, and it might never even occur. <br><br><br>

        <i>Likewise a computer can receive hardware and initial programming comparable to DNA which allows it to learn on its own.</i>

        Not a chance!

        Think about where we are now with Watson.

        It's a very primitive "intelligence" which can only "receive" an input "message" or request, and then lookup a response, and issue that response.

        Even some plant life is capable of exhibiting that kind of "intelligence". It's not really "brain power" in the everyday sense.
    • RE: What makes IBM's Watson run?

      I thought Godel proved AI couldn't be designed by humans. Watson is just part of the Model T human computer interface we've been waiting for these last 35 years since Xerox made the first useful personal interface.
    • RE: What makes IBM's Watson run?


      I think you are all missing the big picture. even those referencing skynet are still not getting it. we do not need to fit all the CPU power and bandwidth in something the size of a human brain... we have wireless Wide Area Networks in this world, all a robot needs is a wifi adapter and one or more 4G cellphone antennas and enough power to control it's own body and run a speech recognition and text to speech app. anything you ask it will be uploaded to a Watson system remotely and the answer will comeback via any available wireless bandwidth in the area, the robot would be able to hack any wireless network security to piggy back on whatever available airwaves were in it's immediate surroundings.

      We don't need to fit Watson in a robot, just give the robot a method of communicating with Watson. Imagine teaming 10 or 20 wireless network connections, the robot could download terabytes in a couple of seconds, there is your bandwidth. (advance reply to those who are about to say wifi/4G doesn't have enough bandwidth)

      think of what the definition of "SKYnet" is.
  • Typical Steven, taking credit and giving none

    Linux is a wonderful operating system, but Linux alone does not make Watson think alone.

    Don't forget the years of research, predecessor machines (running other operating systems), and the hundreds of millions of dollars IBM has sunk into this project over the years. This is the culmination of many projects, tens of thousands of people and dedication by IBM. Linux is only one part that could have been played by another OS.

    Give credit where it's due, don't claim all when you are only entitled to a small portion.
    • So why didn't they pick a windoze machine?

      [i]Linux is only one part that could have been played by another OS.[/i]

      I guess they just don't measure up, huh... ;)
      search &amp; destroy
  • RE: What makes IBM's Watson run?

    I would agree with cynical99 it will only be a short time b4 we are all talking naturally to computers, even if they are bound to still get some stuff wrong for a long long time.
  • Your tax dollars...

    ...flushed down the toilet. Meanwhile IBM is one of the biggest promoters of sending jobs offshore there is, but hailed as hero's when a bucket of bolts shows up on a game show. You people are doomed to extinction.
    • RE: What makes IBM's Watson run?

      @james347 Who are "you people"? Are you a computer? My God it works, computers are now trolling message boards!
  • RE: What makes IBM's Watson run?

    I saw a piece about this on TV last week, and one thing that struck me as odd was that all (I think) the people using notebooks were using Macs. How the world has changed!