Resistance Is Futile

'Jeopardy!' next week features two champions matching wits with an IBM computer. Game on.
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Jeopardy! has won a record-setting 28 daytime Emmys. It has
been the second-highest-rated show in syndication for many
years. But executive producer Harry Friedman never imagined
his popular show would make a significant contribution to scientific

In 2004, an IBM executive watched Ken Jennings’ record-setting
74-game Jeopardy! winning streak and wondered whether his company
could create a computer that could play the game like Jennings, much
as IBM did years earlier with its chess-playing computer Deep Blue.

Under the leadership of Dave Ferrucci, a chief scientist at IBM and
the project’s principal investigator, Big Blue in 2007 began developing
technology called “Watson” that could use natural-language understanding
to interpret Jeopardy! questions, sift contextual clues gleaned
through a massive database and spit out a correct answer.

Mimicking the human brain was no simple task: It took 2,880 processing
cores, 15 terabytes of RAM, 80 kilowatts of power and enough
memory to store 1 million books’ worth of information, says Ferrucci.

In early tests, Watson couldn’t process an answer in under two
hours—“and that wouldn’t make for very good TV,” Ferrucci says.
But his team eventually got the response time down to under three
seconds, the minimum required to keep up
with Jeopardy! champions.

After nearly four years and 55 sparring
rounds with former Jeopardy! champs, Watson
is ready to face the best. From Monday,
Feb. 14 through Wednesday, Feb. 16, Jeopardy!
will feature three episodes in which the
show’s two greatest champions, Ken Jennings
and Brad Rutter, take on Watson.

Jeopardy! will mark some firsts in these episodes.
The show traveled to IBM headquarters
in Armonk, N.Y., and set up a small set
in an auditorium there, marking the first time
in the show’s 47-year history it taped in a
non-TV-ready facility. It’s also the first time
Jeopardy! has included narrative video packages,
which explain Watson to viewers.

“Originally, the plan was to tape the shows
on our set,” says Friedman, “but once we saw
how much hardware it takes to be Watson,
we thought it might be safer to leave Watson
in his comfy home and take the shows there.”

Jennings and Rutter played two full games against the computer,
with their winnings going to charity for the first time. Watson doesn’t
understand speech, so it had clues fed to it digitally, while Jennings
and Rutter still had to hit the buzzer after hearing a clue from host
Alex Trebek.

Both champions were impressed, although Jennings noted that humans
still have the advantage when it comes to context.

“Watson will occasionally make a mistake that a kindergartner
would make,” says Jennings. “If you ask it how to say ‘goodbye’ in
Russian, it answers ‘cholesterol.’ I asked it what grasshoppers eat, and
it responded, ‘kosher.’

Once Watson’s brief Jeopardy! run wraps up, IBM plans to adapt the
technology to other applications. For example, medical centers could
use the technology to help determine an early diagnosis, or technical
support centers could use it to quickly find answers.

Says Friedman: “How often does a quiz show have the opportunity
to be involved with something this big? Probably once in a lifetime, if that.”

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