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Dean: From Pac-Man to Watson—Reflections of a PC Inventor

The inspiration for some of the world’s most important inventions sometimes comes from unlikely places. Part of my personal motivation for working on the first PC was to find a better way to play Pac-Man. Back in 1980, I was one of the dozen engineers picked to develop the IBM Personal Computer in less than a year. We worked around the clock on the project, including some game-playing. I hold three of the original nine PC patents.

Our team of young engineers had no idea that we were creating a new multi-billion dollar industry, which would ultimately transform the way people worked and lived. To us the assignment was to build IBM’s first Personal Computer using off-the-shelf parts on a very short deadline.

Fast forward 30 years, and we’re marking the culmination of 100 years of innovation at IBMwith the debut of Watson, a computing system with the same transformational potential as the first PC. I think it will be the next thing since the PC to radically change how we work and live.

IBM's Watson computer system, powered by IBM POWER7, competes against Jeopardy!’s two most successful and celebrated contestants Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.
Source: IBM
IBM's Watson computer system, powered by IBM POWER7, competes against Jeopardy!’s two most successful and celebrated contestants Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

Last night, Watson finished competing on the TV show Jeopardy! against the quiz show's two most successful champions – Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. It is machine vs. man. But don’t be fooled by the fact that Watson is playing a game. Jeopardy! was deliberately chosen as the ultimate natural language challenge by the computer’s creators, a team of 25 scientists working in the same research lab where I work.

Performing well on Jeopardy! has promising parallels with real life. “Jeopardy!” contestants must be conversant in a broad range of topics. (To arm Watson for its match, the computer was loaded up with 200 million pages of text, ranging from encyclopedias and dictionaries to movie scripts, newspapers and children's book abstracts.) The game requires speedy responses and discourages guesswork. Solving the clues involves analyzing subtle meaning, puns and other language complexities in which humans excel and computers traditionally do not.

Because of these capabilities, Watson’s ability to think and learn represents a breakthrough in how computers can be used to change life the same way the PC did.

Take the health care field. The next time you’re sick, imagine if all the characteristics of your health were stored in a centralized system: symptoms, past illnesses, physician notes and family history. Along with this data, Watson technology could automatically peel through a massive volume of texts, reference materials, prior cases, and the latest knowledge in journals and medical literature to assist your doctor in arriving at a diagnosis.

IBM's 'Watson' computing system.
Getty Images
IBM's 'Watson' computing system.

When you pick-up the phone to call customer service, Watson could help your customer service representative assess the situation on a purchase, return, or complaint and then integrate that with product data. It would provide an answer that the customer rep could review and perhaps offer a discount on a specific product with a tailored warranty plan and free installation.

Asking questions is simple. In today’s world of information overload, the ability of humans to get accurate answers quickly is far from simple.

When the PC was invented, we never imagined the technology would become an integral part of everyday life outside of the office. Its ubiquity has changed not only the way businesses operate but also how people communicate and relate to each other, from increasing productivity to advancing research and education, to expanding our entertainment options and how we experience them.

When we developed the first PC, computers only understood 5,000 spoken words at 95% accuracy. Watson can understand 100 billion words.

Watson is the result of 100 years of computing at IBM. I cannot imagine what the next 100 years will bring, but I am inspired by the potential of this latest “thinking machine” to radically transform everything from our workplace to how we live our everyday lives.

Mark Dean is an IBM Fellow and vice president of Technical Strategy and Operations for IBM Research. He was a member of the development team that created the original IBM PC, holds three of its first nine patents, and has a total of 40 patents. He has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University.