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‘Jeopardy’ Champion Senses Target on Back in IBM Match

Ken Jennings, 'Watson' and Brad Rutter
"Jeopardy!" contestants, from left, Ken Jennings, "Watson" and Brad Rutter during a news conference. Photographer: Ben Hider/Getty Images

This “Jeopardy!” champion, more than any other, helped International Business Machines Corp. develop a computer capable of playing the television quiz show.

Who is Ken Jennings?

As IBM’s “Watson,” named after company founder Thomas J. Watson, begins a man versus machine battle on Jeopardy tonight, the computer will square off against the player whose track record played a central role in shaping it. IBM scientists mined troves of data from past winners to develop the computer’s capabilities, and Jennings, as winner of a record 74 games in 2004, generated more statistics than any other.

“I felt like I had a target painted on me,” the 36-year-old said in a phone interview last week.

Jennings and Brad Rutter, another former champion, face Watson in a three-day competition that runs through Feb. 16, with a $1 million first-place prize on the line. The shows will be broadcast from IBM’s lab in Yorktown Heights, New York, and air during the regular “Jeopardy” time slot.

IBM built Watson, after creating the computer that defeated champion Gary Kasparov in chess, to tackle another challenge: make a machine that could understand natural human language, as opposed to the keyword searches used in the search engines of Google Inc. or Microsoft Corp. IBM wanted the effort to have real-world applications. “Jeopardy,” with its word plays, innuendos and penalties for inaccuracy, proved a good test.

As Dave Ferrucci, IBM’s lead scientist on the project, and his team developed Watson, they used Jennings’s data to create the “Jennings Arc,” according to Stephen Baker, who has written a book about Watson. The measure tracked how often Jennings was first to hit the buzzer to answer questions and how often he answered correctly, Baker said.

Jennings’s Precision

“Jennings represented the statistical performance of a ‘Jeopardy’ superstar,” Baker, whose book is “Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything,” said in an interview.

Jennings, a computer science major at Brigham Young University and former computer programmer, was skeptical at first that IBM could make a computer to play “Jeopardy.” That changed when he saw tapes of Watson “demolishing” championship level players, he said.

While having Watson compete was one thing for Ferrucci and his team, playing at Jennings’s level represented the highest standard for “Jeopardy.” In his stretch of games, Jennings answered questions correctly about 92 percent of the time and was first to the buzzer more than half the time, Baker wrote.


IBM researchers deduced that, to play at his level, Watson would have to get to the buzzer half the time, answer correctly nine out of 10 times and win a decent amount of the Daily Doubles, questions randomly sprinkled among clues that let contestants bet money on whether they’ll get it right, he wrote.

Jennings first saw the charts about his performance that IBM was using in Watson’s development in a research paper.

“I sort of jumped up a little in my seat, like somebody was watching me,” he said.

Watson, who appears on film as a round avatar on a screen, has a custom-made database created from journals, newspapers and other resources. Watson receives each question through a typed entry at the same time queries are read to the other contestants. The computer then scans the database with algorithms and calculates its degree of confidence in an answer. If its confidence crosses a certain threshold, a mechanical thumb buzzes in and Watson speaks the answer out loud.

Business Applications

The project builds on IBM’s work in artificial intelligence, including the Deep Blue supercomputer that defeated world champion Kasparov in a 1997 match. IBM, the world’s largest computer-services provider, decided to try another challenge that would pique the public’s interest -- and this time with commercial applications.

The machine has been generating interest from businesses in various sectors, especially customer support and health care, Ferrucci said in an interview last year. The computer runs on IBM’s Power 7 server system.

“To make good decisions in health care, it involves looking at databases of information, but also journals, reference materials, textbooks, blogs, doctors’ notes,” he said. “There is tremendous potential for the technology.”

The company, based in Armonk, New York, fell 63 cents to $163.22 at 4 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. The shares have gained 11 percent this year.

Sparring Matches

Watson ran into some snags through development, confusing meanings of “cushion,” and answering, with confidence, that the eighth wonder of the world was King Kong.

“Natural language is ambiguous,” Ferrucci said in the interview last year. “Everything you need to understand in that sentence isn’t necessarily in that sentence.”

After four years of development, Watson was further tweaked during more than 50 games against former “Jeopardy” champions.

IBM and Jeopardy executives announced last year that Watson would square off with Jennings and Rutter, who has won more money than any player on Jeopardy and beat Jennings in a tournament in 2005.

IBM 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.

Jennings pushed himself to prepare for the match.

“I used this online application that let me play every Final Jeopardy going back to 1984,” he said. “It’s the geek equivalent of Rocky Balboa training.”

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