Human Champions to Face IBM Computer on Jeopardy!

By Ed Silverstein December 15, 2010

Can a computer beat a human being in a game designed for humans? American TV viewers will soon find out. Two of the most successful contestants ever to appear on the Jeopardy! game show – Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter – will face a new kind of challenger: an IBM computer named “Watson.”

Watson was named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson.

It was built by a team of IBM scientists and “rivals a human’s ability to answer questions posed in natural language with speed, accuracy and confidence,” according to a company statement.

This is the first competition between a human being and a computer on the TV show. It will be broadcast on Feb. 14, 15 and 16, 2011.

IBM explained that this game show is a real challenge for the computer because clues require the analysis of “subtle meaning, irony, riddles, and other complexities in which humans excel and computers traditionally do not,” according to a report on TechZone360.

"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 David Ferrucci, an IBM scientist who helped lead the project. “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."

The two human contestants are impressive.

During 2004-05, Jennings broke the show’s record for the most consecutive games when he won 74 successive games. He earned more than $2.5 million.

Rutter won the largest cumulative amount given to a contestant on the show. He earned $3,255,102. The amount included money from Rutter’s original appearance in 2002, and money from three tournament wins.

According to IBM, the first-place winner will get $1 million. The second-place winner will get $300,000. The third-place winner, $200,000. Rutter and Jennings plan to donate 50 percent of the money they win to charity. IBM said it will donate everything to charity.

“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 Harry Friedman, executive producer of Jeopardy! "We're thrilled that Jeopardy! is considered a benchmark of ultimate knowledge.”  

In recent months, Watson played in over 50 practice games against former Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions contestants. Watson has also passed the Jeopardy! test that humans take to qualify to play on the show.

IBM explains that the technology used for Watson can also be used “to solve problems and drive progress in various fields.”

“The computer has the ability to sift through vast amounts of data and return precise answers, ranking its confidence in its answers. The technology could be applied in areas such as healthcare, to help accurately diagnose patients, to improve online self-service help desks, to provide tourists and citizens with specific information regarding cities, prompt customer support via phone, and much more,” said IBM.

An IBM POWER7 server powers the Watson software. The computer system has technology for processing “concurrent tasks and data while analyzing information in real time,” according to IBM.

The AP reported that the man versus computer challenge is similar to when, in 1997, chess expert Garry Kasparov played a chess-playing computer.


Ed Silverstein is a TechZone360 contributor. To read more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Jaclyn Allard

TechZone360 Contributor

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