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IBM's Jeopardy strategy: Divide and conquer

IBM shared a few secrets behind its Jeopardy-challenging Watson computer

By Joab Jackson, IDG News Service
January 05, 2011 08:11 AM ET

IDG News Service - When it comes tackling a challenge as tough as answering a human question, the best computational approach may be to break the job down into multiple parts and run them all in parallel, IBM is betting.

IBM will be taking this strategy next month when its custom-built computer, nicknamed Watson, will compete in an episode of the Jeopardy game show against two previous champions.

While IBM has been thus far been silent about Watson's exact configuration, Watson lead manager David Ferrucci recently shared a few insights with the IDG News Service about how the system was built to take on this formidable task.

For IBM, the Jeopardy challenge represents the next stage in mimicking human intelligence in computer form. In 1997, IBM's Deep Blue computer won a game of chess against grandmaster Garry Kasparov. Jeopardy will be even a tougher job, Ferrucci said.

"In chess, there is nothing tacit, nothing contextual," Ferrucci said. In contrast, the questions in a Jeopardy match assume an understanding of how people communicate, including the many references and allusions they use. "It's a huge challenge," he said.

"Natural language processing is so difficult because of the many different ways the same information can be expressed," Ferrucci said.

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