David Ferrucci on Creating IBM’s Watson: Pursue the Big Challenges

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Posted on: March 15, 2012 / Last Modified: November 12, 2021

This Monday I interviewed Dr. David Ferrucci on Singularity 1 on 1.

David is the IBM team leader behind Watson – the computer that succeeded in dethroning humanity’s greatest ever Jeopardy champion – Ken Jennings.

I met both Dr. Ferrucci and Ken Jennings during last year’s Singularity Summit where both of them spoke about Watson and the opportunities and challenges associated with it. It was then and there that I hatched my plan to get David (and Ken) on Singularity 1 on 1.

I have to say that I learned a lot from and enjoyed talking to David very much. My favorite quote that I will take away from him is this:

“Pursue the big challenges and do the big things that inspire people and make them scratch their heads.”

During our conversation with Dr. Ferrucci we also discuss topics such as his original interest in biology and medicine and the story of how he got (accidentally) involved in computer science and programming; why Watson is not mere speech recognition software (or statistical database) but natural language processing and (a lot) more; the inside story behind the idea of creating Watson; the motivation and challenges behind the project; overcoming resistance and the danger and fear of failure; the definition of AI; the importance of Watson in the general scheme of things; Watson’s future and David Ferrucci’s plans; the technological singularity; whole-brain simulation and/or emulation; the importance of pursuing the big challenges.

As always you can listen to or download the audio file above or scroll down and watch the video interview in full. To show your support you can write a review on iTunesmake a direct donation, or become a patron on Patreon.


Who is David Ferrucci?

Dr. David Ferrucci is an IBM Fellow and the Principal Investigator (PI) for the Watson/Jeopardy! project. He has been at IBM’s T.J. Watson’s Research Center since 1995 where he heads up the Semantic Analysis and Integration department. Dr. Ferrucci focuses on technologies for automatically discovering valuable knowledge in natural language content and using it to enable better decision making.

As part of his research he led the team that developed UIMA. UIMA is a software framework and open standard widely used by industry and academia for collaboratively integrating, deploying and scaling advanced text and multi-modal (e.g., speech, video) analytics. As chief software architect for UIMA, Dr. Ferrucci led its design and chaired the UIMA standards committee at OASIS. The UIMA software framework is deployed in IBM products and has been contributed to Apache open-source to facilitate broader adoption and development.

In 2007, Dr. Ferrucci took on the Jeopardy! Challenge – tasked to create a computer system that can rival human champions at the game of Jeopardy!. As the PI for the exploratory research project dubbed DeepQA, he focused on advancing automatic, open-domain question answering using massively parallel evidence based hypothesis generation and evaluation. By building on UIMA, on key university collaborations and by taking bold research, engineering and management steps, he led his team to integrate and advance many search, NLP and semantic technologies to deliver results that have out-performed all expectations and have demonstrated world-class performance at a task previously thought insurmountable with the current state-of-the-art. Watson, the computer system built by Ferrucci and his team beat the highest ranked Jeopardy! champions of all time on national television on February 14th 2011. He is now leading his team to demonstrate how DeepQA can make dramatic advances for intelligent decision support in areas including medicine and health care.

Dr. Ferrucci has been the Principal Investigator (PI) on several government-funded research programs on automatic question answering, intelligent systems and saleable text analytics. His team at IBM consists of 32 researchers and software engineers specializing in the areas of Natural Language Processing (NLP), Software Architecture, Information Retrieval, Machine Learning and Knowledge Representation and Reasoning (KR&R).

Dr. Ferrucci graduated from Manhattan College with a BS in Biology and from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1994 with a PhD in Computer Science specializing in knowledge representation and reasoning. He is published in the areas of AI, KR&R, NLP and automatic question-answering.

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