IBM’s Watson gives this robot brains


Meet Kito, possibly the world’s smartest robot. Whether he is or isn’t, though, it’s not a status Kito achieved on his own. (If his is even the right word to describe the diminutive humanoid.)

Kito’s brainpower is delivered via integration with IBM’s Watson computer system. Watson, the real genius behind Kito, is IBM’s initiative to help humans make sense of the immense amount of data generated daily by converting it to information that’s expressed in human terms.

Kito’s so engaging that it’s impossible not to apply a human pronoun. In fact, you have to keep reminding yourself that the cute little robot is only the front man for the Watson system that animates him.

Rob High, Jr., CTO of Watson Solutions at IBM, is the project lead working with IBM engineers and researchers to power the project. High put Kito through his paces at the fifth annual Robotics Alley Conference & Expo in Minneapolis last year. While High was on the event’s mainstage sharing background on cognitive computer systems, Kito interrupted him, saying: “This is boring. When are we gonna talk about robots?”

To illustrate Watson’s voracious appetite for data processing, High employed Kito. The robot was fed 9,000 recipes from Bon Appetite, which Kito digested in seconds. Tapping into Kito’s knowledge of chemistry, the robot has mastered a sense of complimentary flavors and spices that could make up an appealing recipe.

High set a challenge for Kito. Calling on “Chef Kito,” High asked the robot to create a recipe for a Southwest avocado panini. Instantly, Kito’s response popped onto a large onstage screen. High then asked Kito to find the nearest store where he could find the ingredients. Google Maps instantly popped onto the screen, highlighting a nearby supermarket. The sandwich trial was addressed in seconds and is light work for Kito powered by Watson.

In this case, the demonstration was staged for the audience, but everything shown is actually possible using Watson today.

Watson’s advanced data acquisition and analysis is extending human capabilities to capture and categorize key information. For example, Watson is helping physicians scan patient data to quickly identify cancer-related conditions to help doctors diagnose, set strategy and start patient treatment as quickly as possible.

Kito is only one example of how Watson can be integrated into a human-friendly form. And Kito is both friendly and smart. The connection to humans in empathetic form is a requisite. Through painstaking development of algorithms, Kito is programmed to be empathetic, to respond to people in familiar forms of human expression, including non-verbal body language.

High credited Kito’s humanlike responses to a process called “anthropomorphic animation.” To develop an empathetic robot, Watson researchers incorporated four forms of human expression: written, verbal, visual and tactile. The result is that Kito is a smart, friendly humanoid robot who listens, speaks, and responds with familiar speech and human motions. IBM invites other integrations with the cloud-based Watson system.

Kito is an NAO robot from Aldebaran, integrated with the Watson computer system by IBM.

Kito literally is Watson’s brainchild and exemplar for integration with the cognitive computer system. Watson began as a test, High said, to create a cognitive system to learn languages, and the system then was supplied with expansive information to answer questions.

People learning computers have to adapt to computers by performing actions that are atypical, like filling out checkboxes. On the other side of the challenge, computers must learn and focus on ways that humans communicate. Computers work in terms of numbers, while human interaction produces “unstructured data” – variations in speech and body language. The human condition is what Watson is learning, High said. Teaching the computer to learn like humans learn is an iterative process that starts with innuendo, encounters misdirection, and ultimately achieves a cognitive system that can think and act like a human.

The first big test of Watson’s human interaction came when the computer system faced off against two of the most successful competitors on the popular television game show Jeopardy. Watson famously won that match-up, despite some deliberately tricky question patterns.

Beyond Kito’s amiable public exhibitions, how can Watson help people?

An immense volume of data is produced today. If you have a head for math, there’s a daily data growth rate of a billion times a billion bytes of data, High said, and the rate is growing exponentially. Overload isn’t in the distant future, it’s already here. The explosion of data is coming from the Internet of Things, all of the devices we have connected to and feeding the Internet. Humans will be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information.

“Even today, there’s much that we are blind to,” High said.

Doctors, on average, have only five hours per month to read. Medical research and breakthroughs are ongoing.

“It’s not possible (for humans) to keep up,” High notes.

Watson can process immense amounts of information in seconds. The system understands humans and delivers the most relevant information. This benefits medical practitioners by zeroing in on the most current research. Cognitive computer systems do our research for us and knowledge leads to better decisions, High said.

Robots driven by computers and connected to the Internet could serve as a reference source in business meetings or act as researchers for teachers and attorneys. Likewise, robots can be useful to veterinarians, people engaged in fantasy sports or sports training, or a variety of other fields. Cognitive robots have been used to train five-year-olds. One application powered a cyber Abraham Lincoln that answered questions. The system also has helped by identifying learning disabilities.

In e-commerce, shoppers can ask for specific information. For example, you can ask what kind of equipment you would need for a high-altitude hike for a week. “Watson can answer,” High said, virtually transforming the customer’s shopping experience.

Cognitive systems such Watson can help humans deal with the data explosion with ready applications in retail, commercial and industrial settings. The key to human acceptance lies in a robotic system that creates an emotional connection.

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