The video above shows Watson, a computer system with artificial intelligence developed by IBM, participating in a televised game show against Jeopardy record holders Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. The computer uses algorithms (which have been around for a while) to parse out phrases from the jeopardy questions and match them against information in its internal memory. Watson has open access to a memory bank of 200 million pages of text including dictionaries, thesauri, newswire articles, literary works and all of the encyclopedic entries of Wikipedia. This information takes up four terabytes of disk space in its RAM based memory. It is not the first computer to solve these kinds of questions but it is the first to do so in the order of a couple of seconds with very high accuracy.
Like Watson we have mental representations of words, perceptions and concepts organized in our head and these are associated to one another in various ways. The associations are determined by our experiences and each concept, is associated with many other concepts. To access the memory of a concept, several other closely related concepts must be activated at the same time. In fact, when a set of concepts are coactivated (like the words twinkle, distant and night sky), sometimes there is only one representation that all of these descriptions sum together to activate. Interestingly, even our brain cells, at a very fundamental level are organized for multiassociativity. Individual neurons must have messages being sent to them by many other neurons, for them to increase their firing rate. In the cognitive, neuroscientific and AI sense, representations made active by a jeopardy question send out outputs to many different dormant representations and the ones that are converged upon the most become active. In other words, multiple cues activate tons of different representations, but only the representations that best match the suite of cues - taken all together - are activated maximally to become conscious. The important question is, are the associative links in your network of associations wired up in such a way that the representation corresponding to the correct answer will become active?
An answer on Jeopardy a few days ago was: The name of a planet, an element and a Roman god. Within three seconds, the question, "what is mercury," popped into my head. It didn't pop in within a few hundred milliseconds so I must have done some conscious thinking beforehand. But I also know that I did not go sequentially down the list of elements and planets in my head in search for a commonality. The node in my brain (which might correspond to a cluster of neurons or even of cortical minicolumns) that corresponds to the concept of mercury, was converged upon and made active by these other concepts in an automatic and unconscious way.