Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

“A Q&A with David Ferrucci”

August 6th, 2011 / in awards, big science, research horizons / by Erwin Gianchandani

(This post has been updated.)

David Ferrucci does Q&A with Slate [image courtesy Slate].David Ferrucci, the lead researcher for IBM’s Watson, was recently selected by Slate Magazine as one of “five American technology gurus” — for being “both wildly inventive and incredibly practical.” Here’s the official writeup.

As part of the honor, Ferrucci was interviewed by Slate’s Farhad Manjoo. Among the questions:

Do you have a “Holy Grail” that you’re working toward?


The Holy Grail for me is that you’ll get intelligent dialogue with a machine, like on Star Trek. My minigoal toward that is a computer that will help in reading comprehension. Imagine: A third-grade or high-school student will sit down with the computer, and the student and the computer are both reading the text, and the computer could be pedagogical. Let’s say the text is about dinosaurs. The computer could say, “They’re asking for what kind of food a dinosaur eats, and I’m wondering if a plant is a type of food.” Through that dialogue, the computer is getting smarter, [and] it’s helping the student engage in critical thinking. For the first time, humans will be interacting with the machine in a fluent dialogue.

And Ferrucci also authored an essay about the Watson accomplishment — and the challenges that lie ahead:

The challenge for Watson, and more generally for natural-language-processing technologies, is to program computers to do a better job at understanding our language. Computers can process huge volumes of content quickly without getting tired. We are not that fast or enduring. The problem for computers is that so much of human knowledge is in natural-language content—from textbooks to blogs. It is not enough to deliver lists of thousands of documents that contain a few keywords. To help us, computers need to give us precise answers with meaningful justifications. They need to communicate in our terms rather than demand that we communicate in theirs. If we could program computers to more precisely interpret natural language the way we do, then we could leverage their speed to give us more precise and better justified responses based on enormous resources of knowledge that are simply out of our reach. This capability can dramatically advance business, society, and science in so many different areas.


The Watson you saw on Jeopardy! was built on decades of research and used a novel architecture and methodology for combining and advancing NLP and other AI techniques to deliver remarkable performance at a natural-language question-answering task. But it just scratched the surface. More work is needed to get computers to where they can deliver precise responses tailored to our information demands from the whole of human knowledge, whether it be in health care, science, education, or finance.

Check out the full interview here, and Ferrucci’s entire essay here.

And for more of Ferrucci’s take on Watson and the future of NLP and AI, check out a summary of his recent FCRC ’11 keynote.

(Contributed by Max Cho, Eben Tisdale Fellow, CRA)

“A Q&A with David Ferrucci”