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How IBM Watson Learns

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YouTube / IBM

Most of us know IBM's Watson computing system from its breakout performance on Jeopardy! a few years back; I covered that earlier today.

But Watson is significant not because it can win at Jeopardy! -- it's significant because it embodies a fundamental shift in how humans interact with computer systems. The new model is that we ask questions, Watson makes connections based on its ability to understand human language, and then it suggests possible answers...along with showing its work.

The fact that we can see the work behind Watson's answers is critically important -- that's not something you get from a simpler system like a search engine. Most interesting is that, because a human selects from among the best answers, humans can teach Watson in a positive feedback loop. Watson can even ask clarifying questions, allowing it to learn yet more about the world, and improving future performance. Watson works in tandem with humans, and sometimes the top answer is not the most useful to us -- it's the second, third, or fourth answer that may hold the key for a rare medical diagnosis, or an obscure connection. By deploying Watson in health care, IBM is helping doctors explore and improve medical care. Let's take a peek inside the IBM Watson Solutions Lab:

IBM calls Watson a "Learning System," and suggests it's the way we will interact with big data in the future. It's an intriguing notion, and it feels right to me. Especially when we talk about applications like health care, the ability for a human to help teach the computer is crucial. Got three and a half minutes to dig into how Watson learns? Watch this video.

If that piqued your interest, here's Manoj Saxena in a longer TEDx talk adding more context, including the tidbit that IBM is training Watson thoroughly enough that it's "within striking distance" of passing the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam (!):

I'll be digging deeper into Watson later today -- stay tuned for more Watson goodness.

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Kano
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Control the World With a Wave of Your Hand Using This $30 Motion Sensor
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Kano

"Learn to code" is all the rage in kids' toys—even those aimed at preschoolers. As educational toys go, though, Kano's are pretty fun. Earlier this summer, Kano released the Lite Brite-esque Pixel Kit, an LED board that kids (or anyone, really) can program to change and visualize information using the coding tutorials on the Kano desktop app. Now, the company has come out with a stand-alone motion sensor that allows you to see the impact of your code with a wave of the hand.

The $30 sensor kit is only a little bigger than a 50-cent piece, and set-up is as easy as attaching two pieces to a USB port and plugging the cable into a computer. The Kano app will show you what to do next, walking you through a series of "challenges" that hold your hand through the process of coding the sensor to change what you see within the app, whether it's changing the color of an image or playing a virtual game of Pong by waving your hand in front of your computer. The sensor can register three axes of movement, so that you can control different actions by moving your hand left-right, up-down, and forward-backward.

A blue Kano booklet of instructions sits next to a small blue sensor that looks like a periscope.
Kano

The tutorials vary from the very simple (make an arrow rotate according to gestures) to the slightly more involved (build a Pong game). But all of them are made extremely simple with drag-and-drop blocks of JavaScript code, step-by-step instructions, and highlights on the correct choices. If you put your code in the wrong place, the tutorial won't move on. No matter what your real level of understanding of the underlying code, you're going to build that Pong game. Hopefully, you'll pick up a few tricks on the way, though, which will eventually allow you to build your own games.

The motion sensor kit is the most accessible of Kano's products, both in terms of its price (the Pixel Kit is $80 compared to the motion sensor's $30) and the number of things you can do with it. The gesture-based controller can be used to play games, make moving art, or control music. You don't have to have any other Kano equipment, but if you do, you can plug it into other kits to make, say, a motion-activated Pixel Kit light show.

You can buy the Motion Sensor Kit on Kano's website starting today.

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Meet the 17-Year-Old World Champion of Excel Spreadsheets
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iStock

If you spend hours creating spreadsheets in Microsoft Excel for your office job, that work may one day pay off. The Excel World Championship recently awarded its winner a $7000 prize for demonstrating his “skills and creativity” while completing a series of tasks in the program. But the new champion doesn’t come from the professional world—he’s a student at Forest Park High School in Woodbridge, Virginia.

As the New York Post reports, John Dumoulin has won a total of $10,000 in prize money for his Excel expertise. He first discovered his talent when he took a Microsoft Excel 16 certification exam for an IT class at his high school. His score was the highest in the state and it qualified him to join other spreadsheet aficionados at a national competition in Orlando, Florida.

After snagging the $3000 cash prize at that event, he moved on to compete with pros from around the world at the Microsoft Excel World Championship in Anaheim, California. The competition included 150 participants from 49 countries. Never in its history has an American taken home the grand prize, but this year Dumoulin became the first.

The teenager first became acquainted with Excel in middle school, when he made spreadsheets to track the performance of his favorite baseball team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. He told the Associated Press that he’d like to one day make a career out of doing data analytics for baseball teams. For now, his focus is on graduating from high school.

[h/t New York Post]

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