IBM prepares for machine-vs.-man 'Jeopardy!' showdown
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 12:02 PM
YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, N.Y.
Researchers at IBM are preparing a supercomputer named Watson to compete on the popular quiz show "Jeopardy!" this month.
Watson has already won a practice round on the show against two top contestants, showing that artificial intelligence has come a long way in simulating how humans think.
"We have created a computer system which has the ability to understand natural human language, which is a very difficult thing for a computer to do," said John Kelly, director of IBM Research.
"In the field of artificial intelligence, people spend their lifetimes trying to advance that science inches. What Watson does and has demonstrated is the ability to advance the field of artificial intelligence by miles."
Watson, who is named after legendary International Business Machines President Thomas Watson, is a showcase of the company's computing expertise and research in advanced science.
It also shows that IBM - which turns 100 this year - wants to stay at the forefront of technology, even as companies such as Google and Apple have become the industry's leaders.
IBM says Watson's ability to understand language makes it far more evolved than Deep Blue, the company's supercomputer that won against world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997.
The biggest challenge for IBM scientists was teaching Watson to differentiate between literal and metaphorical expressions and understanding puns and slang.
Feeding it knowledge was easier. Watson is not plugged into the Internet but has a database covering topics from history to entertainment.
At a recent practice, held at IBM's Eero Saarinen-designed research facility in the New York City suburb of Yorktown Heights, Watson showed off its familiarity with musical film.
"The film 'Gigi' gave him his signature song, 'Thank Heaven for Little Girls,' " host Alex Trebek said.
"Who is Maurice Chevalier?" Watson replied in the game's question-response format.
The machine, which combines IBM's refrigerator-size Power7 computers, was too big for the set so was on the ground floor.
Watson triumphed in the first practice round, earning $4,400, while Ken Jennings, who won 74 games in a row during the 2004-05 season, trailed with $3,400. Brad Rutter, who has earned a cumulative $3.3 million on the show, came in last.
A win in actual competition, which airs Feb. 14-16, would be a triumph for IBM, which spends $6 billion per year in research and development. An unspecified portion goes to what IBM calls "grand challenges," or multi-year science projects such as Watson and Deep Blue.
IBM executives said Watson's linguistic and analytical capabilities may eventually help develop products in areas such as medical diagnosis.
Jennings, however, said he thought Watson could be beaten.
Fellow contestant Rutter agreed, citing Watson's weakness at grasping humor - a key part of some of the show's categories.
Reacting to a statement about actor-musician Jamie Foxx, who plays the cello, Watson's response was baffling: "Who is Beethoven?"
"I get the two mixed up all the time," joked Rutter to guffaws.
Watson did not laugh but went on to win the practice round.