David Ferrucci, Lead Researcher for IBM's Watson Project, moves beyond Jeopardy!

The most innovative and practical thinkers of our time.
Aug. 2 2011 6:58 AM

David Ferrucci, Lead Researcher for IBM's Watson Project

How do you improve on a computer that beat the world's best Jeopardy! players? Have Watson team up with humanity.

Lead Watson scientist David Ferrucci (via satellite). Click image to expand.
David Ferrucci speaks via satellite at a PBS panel

When IBM's question-answering supercomputer Watson soundly defeated two Jeopardy! champions in February, it looked like curtains for humanity. Sure, computers had beaten people before—at chess, Scrabble, sometimes Go, among other games—but this was different. Jeopardy! is all about fighting through thickets of language—puns, idioms, homonyms, homophones, and other quirks of English that seem uniquely suited to humans. The fact that a computer could understand this wordplay, let alone thump some of the best people who'd ever played the game, felt like a moment of eclipse. And if, in a decade or two, the machines have taken over, we'll have one man to thank: David Ferrucci, leader of the Semantic Analysis and Integration Department at IBM's T.J. Watson's Research Center.

Ferrucci, an artificial-intelligence researcher who specializes in teaching computers how to understand natural human language, has repeatedly downplayed the notion that Watson's Jeopardy! victory portends humanity's decline. Computers are getting better at understanding us, he says, but they still need a lot more training, and that training can only come from collaboration. As machines get better at finding information, Ferrucci says, they'll "dialogue with the user trying to find out what they need," and this back-and-forth will generate the precise answers that today's search engines too rarely deliver.

Ferrucci says IBM is already in talks to implement parts of Watson for a few of its customers, but the really amazing stuff will take a few years to debut. In fields like medicine and law, humans—both professionals and the public—must sift through huge amounts of data to find answers to common problems. (Search Google for ways to treat your headache and you're likely to come away thinking you've got a brain tumor.) A Watson-like machine would step in to do these "high-value" searches for us, Ferrucci says. Even more importantly, the computer might sit between you and your doctor as a kind of intelligent mediator. You'd enter your symptoms, the computer would dive deep into everything that's known about your condition, and it would present possibilities to your doctor, including suggestions for follow-up questions she should ask you. "This would be something you'd use anywhere you're trying to make high-value decisions," Ferrucci says.

Slate's list of the 25 Americans who combine inventive genius and practicality—our best real-world problem solvers. Read more about how we chose them.


Because Watson's powers increase as computers get faster, and because it learns from its conversations with humans, it's bound to keep getting better. Still, Ferrucci says that researchers continue to look for ways to teach machines language—the technology is still in its infancy, and thorny problems remain. "Language is just hard, and it's hard for a fundamental reason—to the computer it's just symbols, and for the human it's a map to actual experiences," Ferrucci says. Thanks to Watson, we're finally getting closer to understanding each other.

Check out the rest of our technology Top Right:

Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab.

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com.

Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy.

Brian Tucker, president of GeoHazards International.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Dear Prudence
Oct. 21 2014 9:18 AM Oh, Boy Prudie counsels a letter writer whose sister dresses her 4-year-old son in pink tutus.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 10:10 AM Where Do I Start With Sleater-Kinney?
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 9:39 AM The International-Student Revolving Door Foreign students shouldn’t have to prove they’ll go home after graduating to get a visa.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.