IBM’s “Watson” victorious: Our new computer overlords?

It’s official: IBM’s “Watson” computer system has defeated two of the brightest minds that our species could put forward for battle, namely legendary Jeopardy! champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Ken Jennings, recognizing that Watson had an insurmountable lead heading into Final Jeopardy (the final question of the match), summed up the situation by writing on his computer slate below his final bid, “I for one welcome our new computer overlords.”

Unlike Tuesday’s round, at least Wednesday’s contest was not a runaway. Watson started out strong, but then stumbled on a variety of subjects. For example, Watson incorrectly answered “What is Serbia?” to a clue asking for the only former Yugoslav republic that is in the current European Union (it is Slovenia). After the end of the first Jeopardy round, Ken Jennings and Watson had each correctly answered 10 questions, and Brad Rutter was close behind with eight.

In the Double Jeopardy round, Watson appeared to do better, scoring 18 correct answers, compared with seven for Jennings and only four for Rutter.

In Final Jeopardy, in the category “19th century novelists,” the clue was “William Wilkinson’s ‘An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia’ inspired this author’s most famous novel.” Watson, evidently confident of its expertise in this category, bet $17,973, and generated the correct response “Who is Bram Stoker” (Stoker is the author of “Dracula.”) This brought Watson’s total for the day to $44,131, a commanding lead over Jennings at $19,200 and Rutter at $11,200. Adding to the first round, Watson’s two-round totals were $77,147, far ahead of Jennings at $24,000 and Rutter at $21,600.

Watson’s winnings ($1,000,000) will be evenly divided with the charities World Vision and World Community Grid. Jennings and Rutter also pledged to donate half of their winnings (Jennings won $300,000 and Rutter won $200,000) to charity.

Some additional information on Wednesday’s contest can be found in this article from today’s (17 Feb 2011) New York Times: NYT Article#1. Some additional background information can be read in the earlier NYT articles NYT article #2 and NYT article #3. Some technical details on the Watson computer system are available in this article: Computerworld article. The impact of the Watson project of IBM in the academic research and high-technology communities is discussed here: FINS article. The U.S. Public Broadcasting Service’s Nova series has done a very nice background piece on Watson. The full one-hour program can be viewed here: PBS Nova show. A January 2012 perspective by David A. Ferrucci of IBM, who oversaw the Watson project, is available here: Ferrucci NYT article.

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