Can IBM's Watson Beat 'Jeopardy!' Champs to the Answers?


Answer: This competitor will give Jeopardy! über-champions Ken Jennings (left) and Brad Rutter (right) a run for their money in 2011.
Question: What is Watson, IBM's Jeopardy!-playing computer?

Jennings, who holds the record for the most consecutive games played on the show, and Rutter, winner of the highest cumulative amount ever by a single Jeopardy! player, will test their trivia mettle against supercomputer Watson in a $1 million man-versus-machine competition scheduled for Feb. 14 through Feb. 16. Second place in the competition will earn someone $300,000, while the contestant who comes in third will receive $200,000. Rutter and Jennings plan to donate 50% of their winnings to charity, while IBM (IBM) will donate its entire prize.

The system, which has not been officially unveiled, is the size of four or five refrigerators. Named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, it was built by a team of IBM scientists who wanted to create a computing system that matched a human's ability to answer questions posed in natural language with speed and accuracy. To be successful, the machine will have to understand the numerous puns used in the game. It took researchers at Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM four years to develop Watson.

IBM points out that Watson is not infallible. Earlier this year, Watson played more than 50 "sparring games" against former Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions contestants to prepare for its television debut. Watson also passed the same test that humans take to qualify as contestants for the show. As IBM notes, "The system incorporates a number of proprietary technologies for the specialized demands ofprocessing an enormous number of concurrent tasks and data while analyzing information in real time."

Nontrivial Uses for Watson's Technology

The televised competition of two games over three days will be a coming-out party for Watson against the best human competitors available. Jennings, perhaps the most famous game show contestant
ever, won 74 games in a row during the 2004-2005 season, resulting in winnings of more than $2.5 million. In addition, Jennings picked up $500,000 on Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? (He was smart enough, evidently, to quit while he was ahead rather than risk it all on a final question he couldn't predict.) Rutter won $3.26 million on Jeopardy! between 2000 and 2005, earning the bulk of it in the $2 million prize from the show's Ultimate Tournament of Champions, in which he beat Jennings. Neither player is doing interviews, according to Phil Zimmerman, the show's senior publicist.

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"Performing well on Jeopardy! requires a combination of skills, and it will be fascinating to see whether a computer can compete against arguably the two best Jeopardy! players ever," said Executive Producer Harry Friedman in a press release.

According to IBM, Watson's potential is far from trivial. The technology could help people in professions as varied as doctors and call center workers wade through vast amounts of information to enable them to make better decisions, according to J. Michael Loughran, an IBM spokesman.

"Medical providers would have at their fingertips the most relevant insights pertaining to the medical circumstances, along with the ability to engage in a continuous and evolving dialog over the course of a patient's treatment," he said in an email. "With a need to support increasingly complex and expanding products, contact center representatives and tech support providers find themselves overwhelmed with ever growing amounts of content. Automatically analyzing disparate sources of natural language content ... this type of technology would help the technician identify the most relevant and current information."

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Originally published