From Sci-Fi to Reality: “Watson” and the Boom in Cognitive Computing

Imagine science fiction movies that have come out in the past decade, such as Star Wars, Prometheus, and Avatar, just to name a few. These movies have futuristic elements that seem unattainable within the next century, even with the current accelerated pace of technological developments. But, with current research and collaboration, there has been one theme common in all three of the examples that can be within our grasp in the decades to come: the application of cognitive computing.

Cognitive computing systems are those that interact naturally with people to lessen the gap between humans and machines, easily being able to process large data sets that humans have struggled to process for so long [3]. IBM has created a supercomputer named Watson, dubbed after IBM’s Thomas J. Watson, in an attempt to create a machine that would pass the Turing Test, a test of a machine’s ability to pass as a human. The researchers on the project soon made a goal for the project: for Watson to play in Jeopardy, and win [1]. In order to be successful in playing Jeopardy, one has to have a refined understanding of human speech; enough to be able to discern subtle puns, double meanings and inferred context clues, and the ability to sift through vast quantities of information and draw logical connections between different genres of information. Success in playing Jeopardy against humans would be a stepping stone towards passing the Turing Test, the gold standard of testing a machine’s ability to respond indistinguishably from humans which no machine has ever passed [6]. Watson functions in similar ways to the human brain, with an established amount of memory and hundreds of algorithms, which are gained in humans through the development of critical thinking skills, to draw connections between different pieces, or “threads” of information. The only difference is that Watson has 200 million pages of information to draw on and over 85,000 watts of “brain power” compared to the 20 watts of the human brain [2].

In February 2011, Watson competed with Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, two of Jeopardy’s most successful contenders in its history, where the unthinkable happened: Watson, represented on the podium by a large computer screen, won. At the end of the second episode, Watson was in first place with $25,000 more than Rutter, the second place contender [1]. This victory not only proved to the world the success of IBM’s innovation of data structures and algorithms, but opened the floodgates in regards to the possibilities of what this new technology could do.

In order to commercialize Watson, some tweaks had to be made in regards to how Watson processes data. In Jeopardy, the objective of Watson’s program is to come up with the most probable answer in the least amount of time, or in other words, to beat the opponents. For Watson to be useful in a medical or business setting, Watson had to be made more user-friendly, with more of an emphasis on collaboration. In an interview, the IBM senior vice president John Kelly described cognitive computing currently in its infancy, comparing the development of Watson to the development of the PC in the 1980s. Kelly states that as Watson continues to evolve, it will only grow faster and more compact. When it played on Jeopardy, it was the size of a master bedroom with ten server racks, and Kelly states that within a few years you will probably be able to fit it into your pocket.

The ability to store millions of electronic documents and to search through each of them for the necessary information within seconds has drawn Watson’s capabilities to the medical field. In May 2011, Watson had already acquired the medical knowledge of a second-year medical student, and in 2012, with the help of Memorial Sloan Kettering, honed its accuracy by analyzing over 2 million pages of additional text and 25,000 case studies. In medicine, there is a large gap between researchers making medical breakthroughs, and the doctors and medical personnel who have to put this knowledge into practice [5]. It is estimated that one in five diagnoses are incorrect due to this gap [7]. Watson helps to function as a diagnostic tool, where doctors and nurses can input the applicable symptoms into the program, and within a minute, Watson comes back with various options as to the causation, the degree of confidence for each option, and the reasoning behind the selection of each option [4]. Given a patient’s detailed medical history, Watson can generate a personalized drug regime. The goal that the developers of Watson hope to achieve in the next seven to ten years is to change the culture and dynamics of medicine, making Watson more widely accepted and to eventually become a staple in diagnostics and treatment decision-making.

The medical field is just the beginning in regards to Watson’s applications. Starting in early November 2013, IBM released a development tool kit, an application programming interface, and an application marketplace to a handful of start-ups. This is IBM’s first use of what they call the “Watson Ecosystem,” which is essentially a cloud service, similar in the simplest of terms to services like “Google Drive.” With IBM’s permission, these start-ups will be able to develop apps that can be released to the public. Speculations about the possible categories the apps being developed can fall under include shopping, journalism, research, process optimization, and risk management. Watson is a computer that can adapt easily, quickly, and efficiently to the information it is given. Likewise, if the user would use one of these apps on a regular basis, Watson would learn on an almost intuitive level, for instance, what type of shoes they like, or what type of news they enjoy reading. In the future years to come, when these developer packages are made more widely and cheaply available to the public, our ever-evolving relationship with technology will take a dramatic turn in regards to how we utilize it in our everyday lives [6].

Watson is ultimately helping to usher in a new era of collaboration between humans and machine, a type of dynamic we could only dream of from the likes of science-fiction. In the movie Prometheus, the robotic, computer-driven butler named David could do everything the “perfect” human could do, from medical operations, science experiments, cooking, and in the end he was even able to experience a full-range of human emotions. Coupled with the leaps and bounds in robotics, could this be Watson’s destiny in a matter of decades? The answer is: perhaps, but for now, this is a start.


      1. Best, Jo. “IBM Watson: How the Jeopardy-winning Supercomputer Was Born, and What It Wants to Do next.” TechRepublic. TechRepublic, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <>.
      2. Greenemeier, Larry. “Will IBM’s Watson Usher in a New Era of Cognitive Computing?: Scientific American.” Will IBM’s Watson Usher in a New Era of Cognitive Computing?: Scientific American. Scientific American, 13 Nov. 2013. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <>.
      3. “IBM Research: Cognitive computing.” IBM . N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2013. <>.
      4. Satell, Greg. “How IBM’s Watson Will Change The Way We Work.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 27 Oct. 2013. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <>.
      5. Upbin, Bruce. “IBM’s Watson Gets Its First Piece Of Business In Healthcare.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 08 Feb. 2013. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <>.
      6. Smith, Dave. “IBM Watson API Coming: 3 Potential Business Applications For IBM’s Watson Cloud Ecosystem.” International Business Times. N.p., 14 Nov. 2013. Web. 27 Nov. 2013. <>.
      7. “Watson Is Helping Doctors Fight Cancer.” IBM Watson. IBM, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <>.

Image credit: The New York Times,

Tatiana is a junior at Georgia Tech majoring in Biomedical Engineering and minoring in Spanish and Biochemistry, with an interest in systems biology. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.