IBM supercomputer wins first Jeopardy dust up

A practice round against former Jeopardy champs goes to Watson in the game show's first man vs. machine match

The first round goes to the computer.

In the first man vs. machine Jeopardy competition, IBM's custom-built Watson supercomputer Thursday defeated all-time Jeopardy champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a practice round of the popular television game show.

The real Jeopardy contests are slated to be taped today at IBM's Yorktown Heights Research Center for television viewing from Feb. 14 to Feb. 16.

For IBM, the Jeopardy challenge represents the next stage in the challenge of creating computers that can mimic human intelligence. David Ferrucci, the scientist leading the Watson team, said in a previous interview that the challenge of natural language processing can be intense because of the many ways the same information can be conveyed.

An IBM team of scientists spent four years building a computer system that can rival a human in answering questions posed in natural language. While IBM has been fairly mum about the bulk of Watson's architecture, it has acknowledged that it is powered by an IBM Power 7 server.

"After four years, our scientific team believes that Watson is ready for this challenge based on its ability to rapidly comprehend what the Jeopardy clue is asking, analyze the information it has access to, come up with precise answers, and develop an accurate confidence in its response," said Ferrucci in a statement.

"Beyond our excitement for the match itself, our team is very motivated by the possibilities that Watson's breakthrough computing capabilities hold for building a smarter planet and helping people in their business tasks and personal lives," he added.

Programmers and scientists working on the Watson project pushed for the Jeopardy challenge because the game show provides what they feel is "the ultimate challenge." The show's clues involve analyzing subtle meaning, irony, riddles, and other complexities in which many humans excel and computers do not.

To get ready for the final matches, the supercomputer last fall played more than 50 practice games against former Jeopardy champions. IBM also reported that Watson had to take and pass the same test that human contestants have to take to qualify as a contestant.

IBM has said that the developers of the supercomputer aren't focused mostly on winning a game show.

In fact, they are looking at creating technology that can be applied in a variety of important applications, such as diagnosing the ills of medical patients. Officials said that the technology could be used to improve online self-service help desks, provide tourists with travel information and improve telephone customer support services.

Joab Jackson of the IDG News Service contributed to this story.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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