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IBM's Watson surges to giant Jeopardy lead, retains tie against human competitors

What we learned about Watson on "his" first Jeopardy appearance

IBM's Watson surged to a giant lead in the early minutes of the Jeopardy man-vs.-machine challenge, taking a $4,200 advantage into the first commercial break by dominating "Beatles People" and several other categories. But the massive supercomputer relinquished "his" lead and ended Day 1 of the three-day challenge in a tie at $5,000 with Jeopardy champion Brad Rutter. Ken Jennings finished the first day in third place at $2,000.

The first historic moment came when Watson buzzed in and said "What is shoe?" in response to a clue asking for a four-letter word describing both the iron fitting on a horse's hoof and a card-dealing box in a casino. That was Watson's first correct answer, with the computer started a major roll, taking $5,200 into the first commercial break, compared to $1,000 for Brad and $200 for Ken.

Watson dominated a category on Beatles people, identifying the correct answer in all five clues, and ringing in fast enough on four of them. Watson only rings in when it has enough certainty in the answer, and Jeopardy conveniently displayed the percentages on the bottom screen. For example, Watson was 98% certain of the answer "Eleanor Rigby" when Alex Trebek read the lyrics to the famous song, and rang in soon enough to get the points.

Watson also correctly identified Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, Michelangelo's Last Judgment, Olympian Michael Phelps, and a black hole's event horizon.

There were a few odd moments, naturally. In one instance, Watson offered the same (wrong) answer a competitor had just said. It's not clear whether Watson is informed of his competitors' mistakes, but Trebek seemed surprised by the gaffe. 

Watson's first incorrect answer was when he replied "what is finis" to a clue asking for a word that originated from the Latin for "end" and can mean the place where trains originate. The correct answer was terminal. 

In another case, the clue was about an Olympic oddity in which the athlete was missing a leg. Watson replied simply "what is leg," and was penalized for not being specific enough. 

Double Jeopardy and Final Jeopardy of the first game will be tomorrow, while the challenge will finish with the second contest Wednesday.

"So what have we learned so far?" Trebek asked at the end of the show. "Watson's very bright, very fast, but we has some weird little moments once in a while. And how many of those will we encounter tomorrow when we play Double and Final Jeopardy?"

One thing we did learn is that Watson is capable of winning this match, whether he ends up doing so or not. Watson knew the answers to many questions, consistently buzzed in ahead of his human opponents and made only a few mistakes. Watson stumbled onto the first Daily Double and bet the maximum $1,000, even though his scoring total was just $400 to that point. The two-day match will take three days to watch to give Trebek and team time to show off all the cool things the public may not know about IBM's Jeopardy-playing computer.

Viewers got to see Trebek walking through the computer room that contains Watson, which is next door to the IBM research facility where the contest was taped. Watson was present in the game room only in avatar form. The Watson room is noisy, mostly from the refrigeration system needed to keep the giant computer cool. Consisting of ten racks, each with ten Power7 servers, Watson's deep analytic system "is the equivalent of 2,800 powerful computers tied together in a super high-speed network," with a "memory capacity of 15 trillion bytes," Trebek said. 

Like all contestants, though, Trebek noted that Watson must stand on his own. What does that mean? He can't connect to the Internet. If Watson could search Google, he'd probably win by a mile. But that would neither be fair nor interesting. 

There's plenty of interesting stuff about Watson all over the Web. Here's one interesting overview of the IBM project:

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