IBM Supercomputer Wins Jeopardy Round

YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, N.Y. ( TheStreet) -- Groomed by IBM ( IBM), the newest Jeopardy! contestant showed no emotion Thursday while tearing through questions and categories like "Chicks Dig Me," in a short practice round held on a small stage at IBM's research headquarters.

The emotion was left to the audience as Watson, the contestant, beat out two of Jeopardy's most winningest champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, by $1,000.

Watson, comprised of 15 terabytes of RAM, 2,880 processor cores and 10 racks of IBM Power 750 servers running Linux, is IBM's 4-years-in-the-making supercomputer that can talk, read, wager on Daily Doubles and -- most important, according to IBM and Jeopardy executives -- somewhat comprehend English as humans naturally speak it.

"We are at a very special moment in time here," IBM Research director John E. Kelly III told an audience of journalists Thursday. "We're at a moment in time where computers and computer capability has approached in this dimension the ability of humans, and the fact that the demonstration was so close shows that these two beings, these two lines are crossing. What will happen in the final tournament, we don't know."

Thursday's event was a precursor to two Jeopardy! episodes that will tape Friday and air Feb. 14, 15 and 16, where Watson's artificial intelligence and skill will be challenged by Jennings and Rutter and displayed for the first time to a national audience.

For IBM, Watson's debut is a huge moment, showcasing a breakthrough computing system that can provide specific answers to complex questions -- illustrated well by Jeopardy-style phrasing -- that require the understanding of puns, plays on words and phrases that come with many different contexts.

To make Watson work, IBM scientists loaded Watson up with millions of sources of text including encyclopedias, textbooks and news stories. Watson is not connected to the Internet; instead, he retrieves relevant data already inside him and then uses complex algorithms to analyze the context and relationship of the words and phrases being asked.

And while the Jeopardy! challenge provides a splashy backdrop intended to engage thousands of American viewers -- as opposed, said IBM, to the geeky, mathematical world of chess in which IBM's Deep Blue computer overcame world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997 -- Watson's appeal and usefulness goes far beyond a game show gimmick.

Eventually -- as soon as by the end of the year, says Fred Balboni, IBM's global leader of business analytics and optimization -- businesses should be able to use Watson's technology to make better and more efficient sense of data. Watson's ability to comprehend English as it is spoken by different people could transform how computers help people accomplish certain tasks in call centers, financial services and even in healthcare, where physicians should be able to use Watson's ability to more accurately and quickly diagnose patients.

"The primary focus now is on vertical applications that help empower doctors and professionals to dig into information and to do the deeper analytics ... to empower decision makers," says David Ferrucci, IBM's lead scientist on the Watson project.

Until the business rollout, all eyes will be on Watson's ability to perform under pressure on national TV, and under the direction of Jeopardy's! long-time host, Alex Trebek.

"Watson cannot hear, he cannot see, and he has no sense of humor," says Trebek. "But this is thrilling."

During Thursday's 15-question practice game, Waston buzzed in on seven questions and got all of them correct. The computer racked up $4,400, ahead of Jenning's $3,400 and Rutter's $1,200.

During the actual shows, the contestants will be competing for a first-place prize of $1 million. If Watson wins, 100% of his money will go to charity -- and IBM scientists will have gained a lot of confidence in their new-world computer.

"Watson can literally read all of the healthcare information in the world in a couple of seconds," said IBM's Kelley. "But we also want him to read X-Rays and EKGs ... and all of this work is still to be done."

--Written by Maggie Overfelt in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

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