IBM’s Watson: Can a computer outsmart a Jeopardy! braniac?

Has Artificial Intelligence Finally Arrived?

Perhaps we’ll know the answer after this weeks man versus machine battle on Jeopardy. Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, another former Jeopardy champion, face Watson in a three-day competition that runs through Feb. 16, with a $1 million first-place prize on the line. The shows will be broadcast from IBM’s lab in Yorktown Heights, New York, and air during the regular “Jeopardy” time slot.

As IBM’s “Watson,” named after company founder Thomas J. Watson, begins a man versus machine battle on Jeopardy tonight, the computer will square off against the player whose track record played a central role in shaping it. IBM scientists mined troves of data from past winners to develop the computer’s capabilities, and Jennings, as winner of a record 74 games in 2004, generated more statistics than any other.

Who is Ken Jennings?
Jennings, a computer science major at Brigham Young University and former computer programmer, was skeptical at first that IBM could make a computer to play “Jeopardy.” That changed when he saw tapes of Watson “demolishing” championship level players, he said.

What’s a Watson?
IBM researchers deduced that, to play at his level, Watson would have to get to the buzzer half the time, answer correctly nine out of 10 times and win a decent amount of the Daily Doubles, questions randomly sprinkled among clues that let contestants bet money on whether they’ll get it right, he wrote.

IBM built Watson, after creating the computer that defeated champion Gary Kasparov in chess, to tackle another challenge: make a machine that could understand natural human language, as opposed to the keyword searches used in the search engines of Google Inc. or Microsoft Corp. IBM wanted the effort to have real-world applications. “Jeopardy,” with its word plays, innuendos and penalties for inaccuracy, proved a good test.

As Dave Ferrucci, IBM’s lead scientist on the project, and his team developed Watson, they used Jennings’s data to create the “Jennings Arc,” according to Stephen Baker, who has written a book about Watson. The measure tracked how often Jennings was first to hit the buzzer to answer questions and how often he answered correctly, Baker said.

While having Watson compete was one thing for Ferrucci and his team, playing at Jennings’s level represented the highest standard for “Jeopardy.” In his stretch of games, Jennings answered questions correctly about 92 percent of the time and was first to the buzzer more than half the time.

Watson, who appears on film as a round avatar on a screen, has a custom-made database created from journals, newspapers and other resources. Watson receives each question through a typed entry at the same time queries are read to the other contestants. The computer then scans the database with algorithms and calculates its degree of confidence in an answer. If its confidence crosses a certain threshold, a mechanical thumb buzzes in and Watson speaks the answer out loud.

Tune in to Jeopardy Monday through Wednesday this week to see the results.

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