'Jeopardy!' Pits Supercomputer Against Superhumans

The latest shot has been fired in the ongoing war of man versus machine.

'I'll take Artificial Intelligence, for all it's worth.' (Photo: Ben Hider/Getty)
Following the lead of Wilt Chamberlain, Adam vacated his native Philadelphia for Los Angeles following decades of acclaim and short shorts. He firmly believes that, when it comes to the opportunity for change, we’re on the goal line with bases loaded and no fouls to give. He also finds inspiration in mixed sports metaphors.

Watson, an IBM computer, will pit its artificial IQ against the organic intelligence of trivia super champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on the biggest stage in brain games, Jeopardy! The trio will face off over three days of competition beginning Valentine's night, with the winner set to take home a non-virtual $1 million. 

IBM's fed the equivalent of a million pages of encyclopedia entries, puns, and questions into Watson's wired brain, along with an estimated billion or two dollars in R&D. 

But the souped-up PC isn't just here to play games.

"Now that we've taught Watson to play Jeopardy, we're exploring the best ways to use this kind of capability to solve real problems," says IBM's Vice President of Research Katherine Frase. "We're looking into what more we need to do to make it work for businesses." 

To compute Alex Trebek's clues, Watson must parse the langue of the question to determine exactly what is being asked, then provide an answer. "In the end, the technology has to come up with the right answer in the top position, and it has to have an estimation of how confident is it that the answer is correct," explains David Ferrucci, the Watson Project's principal investigator. "That's a tough, challenging thing to do."

After Watson wraps up its final final Jeopardy! question, the supercomputer will set off for less glamorous frontiers, perhaps serving as an assistant in hospitals, physicians' offices, or financial firms. The thinking machine's question-and-answer brain could prove enormously useful diagnosing patients and pinpointing clues to ailments that mere mortal brains may otherwise miss.  

As for the computer's small screen debut, journalist Bruce Upbin doesn't expect the human race to best the supercomputer. "How do I know Watson will win?" he writes, "because I played two rounds against the 'world’s smartest machine' last week and lost badly." Not only does it have total recall of its digital data, Watson is also quick on the draw, buzzing in answers faster and more accurately than its fleshy competitors. 

Sore losing aside, Upbin expects big things in Watson's real world applications. "This is powerful stuff." 

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