IBM’s Watson system starts Jeopardy! competition today

The long-awaited day of reckoning has arrived for IBM’s Jeopardy!-playing computer named “Watson”. Beginning tonight (14 Feb 2011) in North America, Watson will compete on the quiz show Jeopardy! against legendary champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

Ken Jennings broke an all-time Jeopardy! record with 74 consecutive wins in 2004. Brad Rutter has never been beaten on Jeopardy!, and even beat Ken Jennings in a 2005 championship round. Both Jennings and Rutter have almost superhuman abilities to understand clues and instantly retrieve answers on an enormous range of topics.

From all accounts, they will need their superhuman abilities. The Watson system, which has been under development at IBM for more than four years, is particularly effective in many fact-based categories. For instance, during a test match, in response to the clue “Jacques Cartier found this largest island in the Hochelaga Archipelago while searching for gold,” Watson instantly responded “What is Montreal?” And Watson nailed “Who is Attila the Hun?” in response to “In Act 3 of an 1846 Verdi Opera, this ‘Scourge of God’ is stabbed to death by his lover Odabella.”

But on other test round questions, Watson has blundered. For instance, in response to “This first lady was born Thelma Catherine Ryan on March 16, 1912 in Nevada,” Watson responded “Who is Richard Nixon?” (instead of Pat Nixon).

The Watson team has been working furiously to improve the system’s performance. In addition to shifting to a machine-learning-based scoring system, the team has programmed Watson to “learn” from previous responses in a given category. For example, during a test round, in the category “Celebrations of the Month,” Watson failed to realize that the name of a month was intended and missed its first attempt. But by the end of the category, after noting that other contestants had responded with the names of months, it correctly answered “What is May?” in response to “National Teachers’ day and Kentucky Derby Day.”

So will superhuman contestants Jennings and Rutter be able to prevail against the big bad computer? We’ll soon find out. Stay tuned! (Progress reports will be announced after each day’s match on this blog.)

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.

Some additional background information can be read in the article “Progress in Artificial Intelligence Brings Wonders and Fears,” which was posted today (14 Feb 2011) on the New York Times website, available at NYT article #1, as well as an earlier article, also from the Times: “What Is Artificial Intelligence?,” available at NYT article #2. One other interesting article is the following, which appeared today on the New Scientist website: NS article.

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