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IBM Supercomputer Tests Its Skills On Jeopardy Champs

February 12, 2011

Almost 15 years after a machine developed by IBM defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov, the US computer giant is unveiling another that will challenge mankind once again, this time on the trivia front.

Watson, a supercomputer named after IBM founder Thomas Watson, will take on two of Jeopardy’s all-time biggest winners, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, for a three-night showdown on the long-running trivia game show beginning Monday evening, February 14.

Like Kasparov, who lost a six-game chess match to IBM’s “Deep Blue” in 1997, Jennings and Rutter are expected to have their hands full come game time.

In a practice match at IBM Research headquarters in New York last month, Watson was the top dog in terms of money won, although all three contestants answered all of the 15 questions asked correctly.

Jeopardy, which has been on-air since the 1960s, tests a player’s knowledge of trivia by providing the answer and getting contestants to reply in the form of a question.

During the practice game, for example, one clue given was: “The film Gigi gave him his signature song ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls.’” Watson was the first to sound the buzzer, just a split second ahead of Jennings and Rutter, and gave the correct question in an artificial voice: “Who is Maurice Chevalier?”

“The computer is fast on the buzzer, and if it’s given certain specialties “” it’s good on facts about things it can find and nail down “” it could win,” said Stephen Baker, author of Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything.

“But humans are better with complex English, puns, nuances,” Baker said.

IBM made the case for the Jeopardy! challenge after scientists worked on Watson for four years. The outcome of the game is already determined, but is top secret. The episodes were taped on January 14 at IBM labs in New York.

Watson was not connected to the Internet while playing the game. It worked through multiple algorithms at lightning speed and came up with a percentage score to what it believed was the correct response.

In the Maurice Chevalier clue, Watson was 98 percent certain that that was the correct question/answer.

Alex Trebek, who has hosted Jeopardy! since 1984 said: “I think the guys (Jennings and Rutter) have a slight edge on knowledge (because) their memories are good.” But, “In terms of speed, it’s no contest. Watson has the edge there. But it’ll all come down to luck,” said Trebek.

Harry Friedman, executive producer of Jeopardy! since 1997, said putting the show together was quite challenging. “No one had ever done this before.” Producing “for people and with people” is easy, he said, but dealing with a computer is something else altogether.

The event is a “fascinating exhibition of technology. It’s not a tournament or a competition. It’s to be judged for what technology can do,” Friedman told USA Today.

Developing a supercomputer that can compete side by side with humans, especially the best human Jeopardy! Players, involves challenges far more complex than those faced by scientists who created the chess-playing “Deep Blue.”

“The thing about chess is that it’s fairly straightforward to represent the game in a computer,” said Eric Brown, a member of the IBM research team that has been working on Watson since 2006.

“With chess, it’s almost mathematical “¦ you can consider all the possibilities. It’s almost a closed set of options,” Brown told AFP.

With Jeopardy!, however, there is the use of natural language, which raises a whole host of problems for a computer. “Questions are expressed in language and with an ability to be asked in an infinite numbers of ways,” said Brown, including irony, ambiguity and puns. Those are not a computer’s strong points, he added.

“The initial approach that people might want to take is to just build a giant database,” Brown said. “That approach is just not suitable.”

Also, you cannot compare playing Jeopardy! with searching the Web, argued Brown.

“While they’re somewhat related, Google and Watson are solving two different problems,” he said.

“With Web search, you express your information with a few keywords and then a search engine will bring back 10 or half-a-million Web pages that match what you’re looking for.” But, like with Jeopardy!, if you are searching for a single word or phrase, “you’ll have the task of wading through those documents to find the answer that you’re looking for,” Brown told the French news agency.

IBM said Watson uses Question Answering technology to tackle Jeopardy!’s clues. It gathers evidence, analyzes it and then scoring and ranking the most likely answer, all in a split second.

The three-day Jeopardy! challenge between man and machine begins Monday. The winner of the event will walk away with $1 million. Second place will net $300,000 and third place will pocket $200,000. IBM said it will donate 100 percent of its winnings to charity. Both Jennings and Rutter said they will give 50 percent of their winnings to charity.

Jennings, 36, of Seattle, Washington, who holds the Jeopardy! record for winning the most consecutive games — 74 — said he was spooked by the setting.

“No one was cheering for me,” he said. “It was at their (IBM’s) home arena. It was an away game for humanity.”

Rutter, 33, of Los Angeles, California, holds the record for the highest cumulative amount ever won by a single player on Jeopardy! — $3,255,102.

“People watch the show to see the contestants and how they react,” Rutter said. “Watson will never jump up and down when he gets it right.”

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