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IBM Computer to Face ‘Jeopardy’ Champs for $1 Million

David Ferrucci of IBM
David Ferrucci and his team at IBM have been working with the Watson supercomputer to make it understand questions in natural language. On Feb. 14, 2011, the computer will square off against Jeopardy! quiz show contestants Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, building on IBM's work in the field of artificial intelligence. Photographer: Chris Ware/Bloomberg

International Business Machines Corp. will pit one of its computers against past champions of the “Jeopardy!” quiz show, more than a decade after another IBM machine defeated chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.

“Watson,” as the computer is called after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, will square off against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a contest scheduled to air Feb. 14, said IBM researcher Dave Ferrucci in an interview. Jennings has the longest win streak in the show’s history and Rutter won more money than any other player.

“It’s going to be a close game,” said Ferrucci, an artificial intelligence expert who has headed the Watson project. “These guys are really good. I’m going to have to breathe deeply and count to 10 a lot.”

The three-contestant competition, the show’s usual number, will last three days and the winner will receive $1 million. The shows will be broadcast from IBM’s lab in Yorktown Heights, New York and air during the regular “Jeopardy” time slot.

The project builds on IBM’s work in the field of artificial intelligence, including the Deep Blue supercomputer that defeated world champion Kasparov in a 1997 match. About four years ago, executives at IBM, the world’s largest computer-services provider, decided to try another challenge that would generate public interest -- and this time with potential commercial appeal, said Ferrucci.

The main task: make computers understand questions in natural language, as opposed to the keyword searches common on Google Inc.’s website or Microsoft Corp.’s Bing. While computers can easily search databases, they have problems understanding context, innuendo and other subtleties common in most information, Ferrucci said.

How Watson Works

“The Holy Grail here is to create a technology that can understand what you’re asking, the way you’re asking it,” he said. “People want to do more with all the content we have.”

For the “Jeopardy” competition, Watson will receive each question through a typed entry at the same time host Alex Trebek reads the queries to Jennings and Rutter. The computer will scan a custom-made database for answers and then calculate its degree of confidence in an answer. If the confidence level exceeds a certain threshold, it will buzz and speak the answer out loud.

“Watson’s a big step toward artificial intelligence that directly affects people’s lives,” Paul Saffo, managing director at investment adviser Discern Analytics in San Francisco, said in an interview. “It will have the intended effect -- this is going to absolutely capture people’s attention.”

King Kong

Ferrucci developed the technology for Watson with a team of about 20 other IBM scientists, including software engineers and computational linguists. They created their own database from journals, newspapers and other resources, rather than having the computer rely on the Internet. Then they developed algorithms that look for relevant information, depending in part on context. The computer runs on IBM’s Power 7 server system.

The project hit some snags. When asked to name the eighth Wonder of the World, Watson came back, with “emphatic confidence,” that the answer was King Kong -- which it found in a description of the movie and failed to recognize it as fiction. The computer also struggled with words with double meanings, like “cushion.”

“You could use ‘bad’ to mean bad, you could use ‘bad’ to mean good, you could mean ‘bad’ to mean cool, but there’s an intended meaning” Ferrucci said. “Language is ambiguous, it’s contextual, it’s tacit.”

Track Record

The computer was fine-tuned during more than 50 games against former “Jeopardy” contestants. Ferrucci declined to comment on Watson’s record from the games, saying that although Watson lost some games, the results gave IBM enough confidence to play on air against the two champions.

Jennings won 74 games in 2004 and 2005, setting the record for most consecutive games played. Rutter won the highest total ever by a single player, earning $3.26 million.

IBM, based in Armonk, New York, added $1.54 to $145.82 at 4:15 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. The shares have climbed 11 percent this year.

The company spends about $6 billion a year, or 6 percent of its sales, on research and development. It gets about $1 billion from licensing fees.

The machine has started to generate interest from businesses, particularly in customer support and health care, Ferrucci said, declining to identify companies. The company is building prototypes for specific applications, including health care, he said, noting it would probably be at least three years before such a machine was used commercially.

There’s also potential for mobile devices, if a search is able to show more precise responses on the smaller screen. The technology, which only works in English, will be translated into multiple languages.

IBM has said that it will donate the $1 million to charity if Watson wins. Jennings and Rutter plan to give half of the proceeds to charity if they win.

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