SAN JOSE, Calif. – Call me a curmudgeon, but underneath all the great press about IBM's Watson computer that will play Jeopardy against human champs, I see a less sexy story.
Sure, Watson is a great achievement in harnessing an array of computers to handle really tough jobs in natural language processing and open-ended inquiries. Google does a similarly great job with my typed questions every day that often flat out amazes me.
It's true that these are the sorts of efforts we too often take for granted. Our culture does not adequately value the hard work and acumen in science, math and technology required to perform the daily miracles behind a Web search or Facebook link.
I know this is much needed PR for engineers, the electronics industry—and of course Big Blue that wants to polish its image as a company that really can make businesses ready for a smarter planet, as they say in their ads.
But there's another really important reason why it is strategic for IBM to be seen very broadly by the American public as a company that can tackle tough computer problems. A big slice of Big Blue's pie comes from selling to the U.S. government some of the biggest, most technically exotic and most expensive computer systems in the world.
IBM has long had an out-sized share of contracts in areas such as the systems that simulate nuclear warfare and the effects of aging on our stockpile of nuclear missiles. They also win a generous share of supercomputing grants from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
I do not know who sells to the U.S. government the super secret systems that track high res satellite images, monitor international communications and handle other jobs for the CIA and other military and security agencies. But I suspect IBM is right at the top of the list.
These are some of the most expensive and profitable systems in the world. They help pay for those New York fabs where IBM makes its proprietary Power and other processors and chip sets.
This business is an integral part of IBM's model and has been for years. That's what Jeopardy is not the first game IBM has played. It has wowed us with chess matches and other feats of computing finesse over many years.
With the American public so deeply impressed by IBM's prowess, it makes it a bit easier for the company to sell such high priced systems and exotic architectures. It also makes it easier for government program managers to write those big checks.
For the last decade or so inexpensive clusters of off-the-shelf computers have been making huge inroads into this so-called high performance computing sector. Meanwhile most companies promoting exotic and expensive technologies such as Cray have struggled to survive.
Indeed, the world's most powerful computer uses off the shelf Intel server processors and Nvidia graphics chips put together with a little special sauce of a unique internal cluster network. It was made in China, not by IBM.
Maybe Cray and Thinking Machines and the many U.S. high performance computer companies that have folded in the last 20 years would still be around if they played Jeopardy.
So while you are enjoying the great show and a little PR for the wizardry of computing and engineering, just remember, your tax dollars helped fund this demo.
IBM researcher David Ferrucci plays against Watson