IBM’s “Watson” computer will finally make its appearance on “Jeopardy” in February, taking on two of the show’s all-time winners over a three-day span.
The game will test Watson’s abilities to think in a human-like way, not only being able to retrieve information when requested-as is done with a normal Google search request-but also to go through its vast database of information, make the necessary connections and pick up on the subtle nuances, puns and riddles necessary to answer questions in Jeopardy.
IBM’s goal in building Watson-named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson-is to create a system that can answer questions posed in natural language, and to do so quickly and correctly, according to company officials. IBM over the past few months have been running Watson through a series of 50 or so mock Jeopardy games at its Hawthorne, N.Y., research facility against some former game show participants. The question-answer machine reportedly has won some games and lost others.
“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,” David Ferrucci, the scientist leading the IBM Research team that has created Watson, said in a Dec. 14 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.”
The Jeopardy challenge echoes the chess match in 1997, when an IBM computer called Deep Blue beat chess champion Garry Kasparov. At the time, IBM officials said Deep Blue could calculate 200 million chess moves per second based on a fixed problem.
Watson will have to work differently, however. IBM researchers want it to be able to hear the question posed in natural language and-using massively parallel processing capabilities to understand the complex questions-figure out the subtext of the request, zero in on exactly what its being sought and then find the answer.
Competing against Watson will be Ken Jennings, who broke the Jeopardy record for most consecutive games played with 74 during the 2004-2005 season and won more than $2.5 million, and Brad Rutter, who won more than $3.2 million, the most ever by a contestant. The winner will take $1 million, with second place earning $300,000 and third place $200,000. Rutter and Jennings will donate half of their winnings to charity; IBM will donate all of its winnings.
While the Jeopardy show-which will air Feb. 14-16-will be entertaining, IBM researchers say question-answer systems like Watson will have real-life impacts on business in a variety of fields, including health care, online self-service desks, and tourism, according to IBM. The computer’s ability to quickly sort through vast amounts of data and return precise answers-and then rank the confidence in those answers-also will be key to IBM’s ongoing Smarter Planet initiative, which is driving to improve the world’s infrastructures-from roads to waterways to electrical grids-by putting more intelligence into the systems.