IBM Watson computer to play $1M game against Jeopardy! Champs

IBM Watson natural language computer to take on Jeopardy! Quiz show’s two most prolific past winners -- Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter

IBM is pitting its natural language Watson supercomputer against two of the quiz show Jeopardy!'s biggest champion players in a $1 Million man v. machine challenge for the ages.

Well, at least it should be more than a little entertaining.  IBM said the he first-ever man vs. machine Jeopardy! competition will air on February 14, 15 and 16, 2011, with two matches being played over three consecutive days.

Beyond the petaflop

Watson, named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, is programmed to rival the human ability to answer questions posed in natural language with speed and accuracy, IBM stated. Watson's software is runs on IBM POWER7 servers optimized to handle the massive number of tasks it must perform at rapid speeds to analyze complex language and deliver correct responses to Jeopardy! clues.

The system incorporates a number of proprietary technologies for the specialized demands of processing an enormous number of concurrent tasks and data while analyzing information in real time, IBM stated.

 The Jeopardy! format provides the ultimate challenge because the game's clues involve analyzing subtle meaning, irony, riddles, and other complexities in which humans excel and computers traditionally do not, IBM stated.

IBM has been prepping Watson for the show too.  The system played more than 50 "sparring games" against former Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions contestants and Watson has taken and passed the same Jeopardy! contestant test that humans take to qualify to play on the show.  According to a New York Times article about the test games, the machine kicked butt. 

From the NYT article: "Over the rest of the day, Watson went on a tear, winning four of six games. It displayed remarkable facility with cultural trivia ("This action flick starring Roy Scheider in a high-tech police helicopter was also briefly a TV series" - "What is 'Blue Thunder'?"), science ("The greyhound originated more than 5,000 years ago in this African country, where it was used to hunt gazelles" - "What is Egypt?") and sophisticated wordplay ("Classic candy bar that's a female Supreme Court justice" - "What is Baby Ruth Ginsburg?")."

The other cool aspect of the games will be that  "Watson" will compete against the show's two most prolific past winners -- Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.  Jennings broke the Jeopardy! record for the most consecutive games played by winning 74 games in a row during the 2004-2005 season, resulting in winnings of more than $2.5 million.  Rutter won the highest cumulative amount ever by a single Jeopardy! player, earning $3,255,102.

The grand prize for this competition will be $1 million with second place earning $300,000 and third place $200,000. Rutter and Jennings will donate 50 percent of their winnings to charity and IBM will donate 100 percent of its winnings to charity.

"We're thrilled that Jeopardy! is considered a benchmark of ultimate knowledge," said Harry Friedman, Executive Producer of Jeopardy! I  a statement. "Performing well on Jeopardy! requires a combination of skills, and it will be fascinating to see whether a computer can compete against arguably the two best Jeopardy! players ever."

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