IBM in ‘Jeopardy!’

20 December 2010

Dr. David Ferrucci, the scientist leading the IBM Research team that has created Watson
Dr. David Ferrucci, the scientist leading the IBM Research team that has created Watson

The company’s Watson computing system is to challenge the all time greatest ‘Jeopardy!’ champions.

American quiz show ‘Jeopardy!’ has announced that an IBM computing system named Watson will compete against the show’s two most successful and contestants; Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

The first-ever man versus machine ‘Jeopardy!’ competition will air on 14 February 2011, with two matches being played over three consecutive days.

Watson, named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, was built by a team of IBM scientists who set out to accomplish a challenge – build a computing system that rivals a human’s ability to answer questions posed in natural language with speed, accuracy and confidence. The Watson software is powered by an IBM POWER7 server optimised to handle the massive number of tasks that Watson must perform at rapid speeds to analyse complex language and deliver correct responses to ‘Jeopardy!’ clues. The system incorporates a number of proprietary technologies for the specialised demands of processing an enormous number of concurrent tasks and data while analysing information in real time.

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

Competing against Watson will be two of the most celebrated players ever to appear on the show. Ken 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. Brad Rutter won the highest cumulative amount ever by a single player, earning $3,255,102. The total amount is a combination of Rutter’s original appearance in 2002, plus three tournament wins; the Tournament of Champions and the Million Dollar Masters Tournament in 2002, and the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005.

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% of their winnings to charity and IBM will pledge 100% of its winnings to charity.

"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, analyse the information it has access to, come up with precise answers, and develop an accurate confidence in its response,” said Dr. David Ferrucci (pictured), the scientist leading the IBM Research team that has created Watson. “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."

Last autumn, Watson played more than 50 sparring games against former ‘Jeopardy!’ Tournament of Champions contestants in final preparation for its television debut. In addition, Watson has taken and passed the same ‘Jeopardy!’ contestant test that humans take to qualify to play on the show, giving the show’s producers confidence that the match will be entertaining and competitive.

Beyond ‘Jeopardy!’, the technology behind Watson can be adapted to solve problems and drive progress in various fields. The computer has the ability to sift through vast amounts of data and return precise answers, ranking its confidence in its answers. The technology could be applied in areas such as healthcare, to help accurately diagnose patients, to improve online self-service help desks, to provide tourists and citizens with specific information regarding cities, prompt customer support via phone, and much more.

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