IBM's Watson Takes Jeopardy!, Humans

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- IBM ( IBM) and its Watson computer system pushed us one step closer to technological singularity Wednesday evening.

In the second and final Jeopardy match that pitted two of the game show's most winningest champions against IBM's natural language-grasping computer, the computer won -- easily.

"Who is Bram Stoker? (I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords,)" wrote Ken Jennings for his Final Jeopardy answer. Jennings, who holds the record for the longest winning streak on the show, came in second with a two-game total of $24,000, Brad Rutter at third with $21,600 and Watson, who doesn't have the ability to display any emotion on his brightly-lit avatar, raked in $77,147.

"What have we learned about Watson?" asked Alex Trebek, host of the Sony ( SNE) Pictures-produced show, while opening Wednesday's episode. "Watson is fast, Watson is capable of some weird wages and Toronto is a U.S. city."

Trebek was referring to Watson's second-night gaffe of a Final Jeopardy answer, in which Watson answered "Toronto???" for a clue titled "U.S. Cities."

Watson had no such trip-ups Wednesday. He opened the round in much the same way that he dominated Tuesday's segment, continually beating Jennings and Rutter to the buzzer, which had reporters wondering if Watson holds some sort of advantage in ringing in.

IBM researchers, who hosted a screening of the show for reporters in New York City and San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, say no. Humans, they say, have the advantage of being able to interpret the clue before Trebek finishes speaking -- Watson doesn't. And while humans must wait to see a light that signifies it's OK to buzz in, Watson waits for an "enable signal" that's sent to him via wire.

If Watson is highly confident with an answer, he can buzz in as quickly as 10 milliseconds. "When it comes to buzzing in, humans have the advantage -- they just aren't consistent," said David Ferrucci, the project manager for Watson.

To explain the times when Rutter or Jennings beat Watson to the button, Ferrucci noted that a look at Watson's answer confidence levels -- which Jeopardy displayed for each question -- showed that he wasn't happy enough with his top-choice answer to ring in. "It wants to get beaten when it doesn't have high confidence -- it doesn't want to look stupid."

While Watson undoubtedly engaged a new crop of Jeopardy watchers -- initial reports from around the country Tuesday evening showed that the Watson-involved Jeopardy shows had above-normal viewership -- IBMers are quick to underline the "real" reason for Watson. The idea is a broad, question-and-answer system that will transform how computers help people accomplish certain tasks in call centers, financial services and even in healthcare, where physicians could be able to use Watson's ability to more accurately and quickly diagnose patients.

To that note, IBM pre-announced its first Watson-based business initiative: It will collaborate with Columbia University, the University of Maryland and speech recognition company Nuance Communications ( NUAN) to create a service that will assist physicians with certain medical queries. The first product will be available in 18 to 24 months, said Ferrucci.

To calm the worries that some folks -- like contestant Ken Jennings -- express about Watson representing the progression of superhuman intelligence-laden computers taking over the world, Trebek and IBMers like to point out the obvious: Watson was created for humans by humans, and won't be used to make value-based judgments.

Watson represents something else for IBM, too. "It's a huge publicity thing," said Stephen Baker, the author of Final Jeopardy who spent a better part of a year hanging out with IBM Watson staffers for research. "IBM is competing for investors, brainpower and employees with Apple ( AAPL), Google ( GOOG) and Facebook -- it needs to show people it's a cool company that does cool stuff. People will associate IBM with cutting-edge computers and very futuristic stuff."

--Written by Maggie Overfelt in New York.

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