Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: At Idea Festival, students match wits with celebrity computer

LOUISVILLE — High school students attending the Idea Festival's opening day Wednesday got a lesson in the possibilities of computer science, courtesy of the field's biggest non-human celebrity: Watson, the IBM computer that beat the human champions on Jeopardy!

Six students were selected to play against Watson after David Shepler, who managed the IBM project team that developed the computer, gave a lecture about the science behind how it works.

Watson is basically a huge, fast processor of stored information. It has computing power equivalent to 6,000 personal computers and a staggering 15 terabytes of memory. (One terabyte equals 1,024 gigabytes.)

The innovation of Watson's design is in how it processes information.

"Jeopardy! questions aren't written for computers," Shepler said. Watson had to be programmed to understand human language and thought patterns, react quickly and judge the probable accuracy of answers.

For example, Watson wanted to call King Henry VI, "Henry Vee Eye" rather than "Henry the sixth." But Watson caught on eventually.

Such computing prowess has unlimited applications, Shepler said. The IBM team is first focusing on medicine, looking toward the day when Watson-like computers could help diagnose a patient's illness. The computer could digest the patient's medical and family histories, be programmed with vast quantities of medical knowledge and be able to quickly sort through it to make suggestions to the doctor.