IBM computer taking on 'Jeopardy!' champs for $1M

IBM computer taking on 'Jeopardy!' champs for $1M (AP)
In this undated file publicity image released by Jeopardy!, Ken Jennings, left, and Brad Rutter, two of the most successful contestants on the game show "Jeopardy!," are shown. On Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011, Jennings and Rutter will play a practice round against Watson, a hardware and software system developed by IBM's artificial intelligence team. (AP Photo/Jeopardy!, Charles William Bush) NO SALES

It's the size of 10 refrigerators, and it swallows encyclopedias whole, but an IBM computer was lacking one thing it needed to battle the greatest champions from the "Jeopardy!" quiz show.

It couldn't hit a buzzer.

But that's been fixed, and on Thursday the hardware and software system named Watson was to play a practice round against Ken Jennings, who won a record 74 consecutive "Jeopardy!" games in 2004-05, and Brad Rutter, who won a record $3,255,102 in prize money.

"'Jeopardy!' felt that in order for the game to be as fair as possible, just as a human has to physically hit a buzzer, the system also would have to do that," spokeswoman Jennifer McTighe said. "Now Watson has its own real buzzer."

Follow up: Computer could make 2 'Jeopardy!' champs deep blue

The practice round was to be played on a stage at an IBM research center in Yorktown Heights, 38 miles north of Manhattan and 2,458 miles east of "Jeopardy!'s" home in Culver City, Calif. A real contest among the three, to be televised Feb. 14-16, also will be played at IBM, but the date hasn't been made public.

The winner of the televised match will be awarded $1 million. Second place gets $300,000, third place $200,000. IBM, which has headquarters in Armonk, said it would give its winnings to charity while Jennings and Rutter would give away half theirs.

The practice round is the first public demonstration of the computer system, IBM said. But Watson, which is named for IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, has been engaging in secretive practice rounds with other past "Jeopardy!" contestants, McTighe said. The company won't say how Watson did in those sparring matches.

The system, which is powered by 10 racks of IBM servers running the and has 15 terabytes of random-access memory, or RAM, has been in the works for four years. It has digested encyclopedias, dictionaries, books, news, movie scripts and more, IBM says. It has access to the equivalent of 200 million pages of content. It is not connected to the Internet, so it does not do .

The company says Watson rivals a human's ability to answer questions posed in natural language - rather than computer code - with speed, accuracy and confidence. Unlike earlier computers, it can deal with "Jeopardy's!" subtleties of language, including puns and riddles.

IBM scientist David Ferrucci, a leader of the Watson team, said last month that using "Jeopardy!" to develop the computer system "is going to drive the technology in the right directions."

"It asks all kinds of things," he said. "It has the confidence aspect - don't answer if you don't think you're right. You also have to do it really quickly."

Watson is reminiscent of IBM's famous Deep Blue computer, which defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. But while chess is well-defined and mathematical, "Jeopardy!" presents a more open-ended challenge.

Winning at "Jeopardy!" is not the main prize, IBM says. The technology could mean speedier diagnosing of medical conditions and researching of legal case law, for example.

"This could be something important," said "Jeopardy!" executive producer Harry Friedman, "and we want to be a part of it."

Each contestant will have a podium, just as on normal "Jeopardy!" shows hosted by Alex Trebek. But given the size of the servers, Watson will be represented by an IBM Smart Planet icon on an LCD screen that fluctuates to reflect its processes.

And just as humans have been doing for 47 years on the game show, Watson has learned to come up with an answer in the form of a question.

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'Jeopardy!' to pit humans against IBM machine

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User comments

Jan 13, 2011
Wow, thats hardly fair. They say "Lets make a machine with archival copies of the wealth of human knowledge and pit it against a regular person". It is a good thing, though, as it brings this information out in a more natural way. I want to just ask the computer a question and get a relevant, direct answer! Thats where this will help us in the future.

Jan 13, 2011
It's much tougher than you think to make Watson. It's not enough to have the information in the computer, it has to find the right information.

Jan 13, 2011
Yes, exactly Aliensarethere, it's like using the internet solely with the 'I'm feeling lucky' button. You are likely never going to find what you are after.

Jan 13, 2011
This is just so unbelievable cool! Guess we will be able to dump our keyboards and just chit chat with out computer within an foreseeable future after all!

Jan 13, 2011
This is going to be huge. Looking at the resources IBM dedicated to this (algorithm team alone is 15 people!) this looks like the first seriously funded crack at effectively passing Turning test. The human language interpretation interface that they created will be highly applicable to all kind of AI. I will be watching this with great interest...

Jan 13, 2011
Watson won the practice!
I was half expecting it will fail miserably, just like the "AI" voice help systems usually do. I hope IBM will set up their own call centers now...

Jan 13, 2011
Half the battle on Jeopardy is understanding what the question is, it's sometimes not so clear. Moreover, the human attribute of the 'educated guess' also seems as important as actually knowing everything and anything.

Curious if the machine will only buzz in when it is certain it has the correct response? Likewise, how it handles 'daily doubles' and 'final Jeopardy' when you have to determine your wager.

Jan 13, 2011
This technology is huge and has implications in call centers, medical, research, legal... imagine having a question, any question, asking it and having it answered.

Jan 13, 2011
@ krundoloss
I want to just ask the computer a question and get a relevant, direct answer!

Sorry, you'll have to phrase your question in the form of an answer.

Jan 14, 2011
Did anyone else notice the voice of Watson sounds remarkably like the HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey?


Jan 14, 2011
IBM seem to be at the forefront of AI research, what with Blue Gene/L supercomputers, Blue Brain (simulation) project and now Watson - not at all elementary!

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