IBM supercomputer challenges humans on TV quiz

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

  • Published
board from jeopardy
Image caption,
IBM machines have previously taken on chess players

A supercomputer, designed by IBM, is to face two human contestants on the US quiz show Jeopardy.

Watson will pit its wits against two of the game's most successful players.

At stake is a $1 million prize (£620,000) and the reputation of the field of artificial intelligence.

The company said Watson signals a new era in computing where machines will increasingly be able to learn and understand what humans are really asking them for.

Jeopardy is seen as the greatest challenge for Watson because of the show's rapid fire format and clues that rely on subtle meanings, puns, and riddles; something humans excel at and computers do not.

"Watson has to come up with an answer based on what information it has in its brain just like any human has in his head," Rod Smith, IBM's emerging technology director told BBC News.

"Watson could be connected to the internet all the time, but it won't be because that is not the way to play Jeopardy. This really is about setting the bar and working through all the data it has in less than three seconds to come up with the right answer."

Jeopardy, which first aired on US television in 1964, tests a player's knowledge of trivia in a range of categories, from geography and politics to history and entertainment.

In a twist on traditional game play, contestants are provided with answers and need to supply the questions. A dollar amount is attached to each question and the player with the most amount of money at the end wins the game.


The technology behind Watson relies on analytics to understand what is being asked, to crunch through massive amounts of data and provide the best answer based on the evidence it finds.

That store of information adds up to 15 terabytes of memory, about the size of the total printed text in the Library of Congress.

Mr Smith said inside Watson's brain are around "a million different books and 200m pages of material".

Image caption,
Mr Jennings and Mr Rutter are battle hardened contestants

The amount of power used for Watson is equal to that of a small university.

Watson's adversaries in the show are Ken Jennings, who won 74 games in a row - the most consecutive victories ever - and Brad Rutter, who scored the most money with winnings of more than $3m.

Mr Jennings told his hometown newspaper the Seattle Times that "it's nerve-wracking because you know a computer can't get intimidated. A human player might get frustrated. Watson has no ego, no consciousness".

The competition was held inside IBM's lab in New York and will be broadcast over the next three nights.

"The crowd is full of IBM employees cheering for human blood. It was an away game for the human race. It was gladiatorial," added Mr Jennings.

Prize money

Mr Smith said the end game is about equipping Watson to help us "solve world problems and neighbourhood problems".

"Think about today's government - it produces volumes of data and stuff that we don't even know what to ask. Think about health care or the fact that as we do drug evaluation, you would like to know the different reactions and the different relationships.

"Well Watson can do these types of things, analyse the data quickly and come up with information that is useful to answer these questions".

As well as practical business applications, Stephen Baker, author of Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything, told NPR News that Watson also brings a bit of lustre to what is seen as an unsexy company.

"They need to do this kind of thing because they're not like Apple and Google. They don't have stuff that people want. So they have to show that they can do really fun stuff so that they can attract, you know, great PhDs to their programmes".

The winner of Jeopardy will receive $1 million. The second place receives $300,000 and third place $200,000. Mr Jennings and Mr Rutter have both said they will donate half of their winnings to charity, and IBM will donate all of its winnings to charity.

This is not IBM's first foray at taking on humans. In 1997 the company's computer Deep Blue beat chess champion Gary Kasparov.

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