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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Elementary My Dear Watson...

HAL = IBM with each letter shifted one up...
I heard about the IBM Watson Jeopardy contestant the other day.

In case you don't know IBM has built a new supercomputer to play on the show Jeopardy.  Its called Watson.  Watson has 15 terabytes of memory, 2,880 processors and untold gigabytes of content.  He'll stand tall with his spinning orb avatar in February competing against two top human Jeopardy players.

What's interesting about this to me is the long road computers have trodden over the last thirty years to get to this point.

In around 1980 or so I lived and worked in New York City.  In those days I worked on the original UNIX operating system from Bell Laboratories.  UNIX was a pun on a system called MULTICS.  MULTICS was a giant time sharing system built by GE, MIT and Bell Labs in the 1960's.  It was ugly and slow and a couple of fellas decided that they could do better.

So in the early 1970's (or late 1960's) on an unused PDP-11 two fellows, one named Ken Thompson and the other Dennis Richie, created a new operating system called UNIX.  At first it was all based on assembly language (the original language was called A).  It worked well enough but, according to one fellow I knew, the assembly language programming was tedious.

So Richie invented the C language.  I had heard him give a talk about his C-compiler around 1976 or so.

UNIX turned into what is today Linux, BSD, and Mac OS X.  The story of how all that came about is long and complicated but by 1979 or so Richie and Thompson had moved on to other things.

And that's where I met "Belle".

I was at some conference in NYC one afternoon and I realized that the one of the guy's on the stage in a round table discussion was Ken Thompson.  He had brought along his chess computer called "Belle".  Thompson was always interested in chess (the first UNIX from Bell Labs had a chess program).  Belle was a box about 10 inches high and about 18 inches square.

She had a chess board on top (I think there were LED lights under the squares but I am not sure anymore).  On the chess board were special chess pieces with electronics in them so Belle could tell where they were on her chess board.

Ken Thompson (right)

Belle went on to win the Third World Chess Championship in Linz, Austria in 1980.

This is the first time that I am aware of a computer competing effectively as a person in a world-class event.

Later there was IBM's Deep Blue.  In 1997 Deep Blue beat human world champion Garry Kasparov in a chess match.  Deep Blue was built from IBM RS/6000 processors.  No doubt this work was influenced by Ken Thompson's work with Belle.

Deep Blue
And next month we will have Watson playing Jeopardy.  Probably not as prestigious as a world chess match but certainly more accessible.

In the intervening 15 or so years the face of this sort of computing has changed right along with the basic capabilities of computing.

"Belle" had a physical chess interface, i.e., an actual chess board.

Blue had a traditional computer interface.

But Watson will stand tall on "his/its/her" own right on the game show floor:

Watson center during a practice round.
I imagine that it won't be long until we have a real 3D version of a computer system playing some game somewhere, or perhaps doing something even more interesting like driving in a race...

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