How Watson’s $1 Million Jeopardy Win Helps IBM’s Other Supercomputer

IBM's Watson supercomputer


After crushing the humanoids on Jeopardy this week, IBM’s Watson computer took home $1 million in prize money. Instead of throwing it away on Tiffany diamond-encrusted circuit boards or a Lamborghini to show up other supercomputers, Watson is showing that its silicon heart is in the right place. Half the money will go to the World Vision, a nonprofit that helps children in poverty, the other half to World Community Grid, IBM’s humanitarian supercomputer.

As we chronicled last year, World Community Grid, or WCG, is an enormous volunteer computer network dedicated to scientific research. Ordinary citizens donate their idle laptops and desktops to be used for crunching algorithms and conducting mathematical experiments that accelerate research on clean energy and high-yield rice crops as well as cures for cancer, AIDS, muscular dystrophy, and other diseases. IBM started the free, open-source lab in 2004 to make a virtual supercomputer available to researchers who couldn’t otherwise afford one.

Half of Watson’s winnings, $500,000, will be given to scientists who apply for grants to use the WCG. The publicity should only help the grid grow beyond the 535,000 participants (and 1.7 million computers) in more than 80 countries. Yesterday, as word spread of the grid’s windfall, 1,300 people signed up, seven times more than on a typical day. (The Daily Septuple perhaps?)

Joining is a no-brainer. When you’re not using your computer’s CPU, it’s just sitting there, bored out of its circuits, when it could be performing some serious math that benefits mankind. It’s easy to sign up. You download an app that senses when your computer isn’t in use (while you’re at lunch, watching Jeopardy, whatever) and assigns it math to do. When your computer completes the assignment in its free time, the app reports the results to IBM. Those are the app’s only functions.

Since we started Team Fast Company last year on the WCG, its 79 participants have donated a staggering 15 years of computer time. That is, it would take a single computer that long to do all the calculations that our combined computers have done so far. Impressive, sure. But we can do better. So check out the grid and look for Fast Company on the team page.

[Image courtesy of IBM]

About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug.