IBM's Jeopardy supercomputer beats humans in practice bout

ibm_jeopardy.top.jpgJeopardy champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter faced off against IBM's Watson supercomputer (center) in a practice bout. By Julianne Pepitone, staff reporter


YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, N.Y. (CNNMoney) -- Walking into IBM's Yorktown Heights Research Center feels like entering a time capsule. The rock-covered walls and mod white chairs are super-'70s, and the wall clocks look like they belong in an old elementary school next to those clanging red bells.

But the mob of journalists who arrived at the lab on Thursday came for an event that focused on cutting-edge innovation. Next month, IBM's Watson supercomputer will do battle on Jeopardy with two of the show's all-time top human champions. IBM offered a sneak peek this week at a practice round -- overseen by Alex Trebek, on a replica Jeopardy set IBM spent $1 million to build.

Watson, IBM's natural-language processing supercomputer, is surprisingly cute and anthropomorphized. "He" appears as a black rectangle with a globe avatar sitting between his future rivals, Jeopardy champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, who also came to Yorktown Heights for the practice bout.

The Jeopardy categories appear across the screen. The round includes "A man, a plan, a canal...Erie!" and "Chicks dig me."

Jennings quips, "I've never said this on TV -- 'Chicks dig me' for $300.'"

The audience laughs -- and then roars when Watson later intones, "Let's finish up 'Chicks dig me.'"

Watson doesn't answer any questions incorrectly, but the machine stays silent throughout the "Children's Books" category, which Jennings sweeps.

The whole setup is wonderfully cute and a ton of fun, but there's a lot of advanced tech going on here. IBM says Watson could have deep implications for practical situations.

Inside Watson's heart, soul and hardware: Watson, which takes its name from the surname of IBM founder Thomas J., is a computing system that aims to "understand" language as humans naturally speak it.

That's no easy feat for a computer. Human language is full of subtleties, irony and words with multiple meanings. IBM has been working on the project for several years.

To do this, Watson's researchers loaded their machine with 200 million pages of text. Watson uses that data to analyze contextual clues and figure out how words relate to each other.

Take the Jeopardy example. Watson processes the questions by considering many factors, ranging from straightforward keyword matching to more complex challenges like homonyms (the bark of a tree is not the same as a dog's bark) and statistical paraphrasing ("Big Blue" is the same thing as "IBM").

Watson runs through its databases to come up with an answer, and it will only "buzz in" if it reaches a set threshold of certainty. That's a massive number of tasks occurring at the same time.

But Watson is able to do this quickly thanks to software that runs on a 10 refrigerator-sized racks of IBM Power7 systems. The machine is a grandkid to Deep Blue, the chess-playing IBM supercomputer that trounced world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997.

Practical applications: IBM researchers say they avoided merely loading Watson up with countless databases because they want the technology to work for any person or company looking for quick answers.

David Ferrucci, IBM's lead researcher on Watson, said in a question-and-answer session that the company sees huge potential in the health care area. Watson could help doctors more accurately diagnose patients, he suggested.

Other business applications include online self-service help desks, tourist information centers, customer hotlines and more, IBM says.

So who won the "Jeopardy!" practice run?! Watson won! Too bad, humans!

In a 15-question round, Watson fielded about half of the questions -- and got none wrong. The computer netted $4,400, nearly quadrupling Rutter's score and beating Jennings by $1,000.

Jennings and Rutter also sported a perfect track record on their answers. The final margin seemed to come down to who could buzz in the fastest.

The real competition will be a series of matches that will air on television on February 14, 15 and 16. First place wins a cool million, second place takes home $300,000 and third place nets $200,000.

IBM (IBM, Fortune 500) will donate 100% of Watson's winnings to charity, while Rutter and Jennings each said they will donate 50% of their prizes. To top of page

Frontline troops push for solar energy
The U.S. Marines are testing renewable energy technologies like solar to reduce costs and casualties associated with fossil fuels. Play
25 Best Places to find rich singles
Looking for Mr. or Ms. Moneybags? Hunt down the perfect mate in these wealthy cities, which are brimming with unattached professionals. More
Fun festivals: Twins to mustard to pirates!
You'll see double in Twinsburg, Ohio, and Ketchup lovers should beware in Middleton, WI. Here's some of the best and strangest town festivals. Play
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 17,804.80 26.65 0.15%
Nasdaq 4,765.38 16.98 0.36%
S&P 500 2,070.65 9.42 0.46%
Treasuries 2.18 -0.03 -1.27%
Data as of 5:27pm ET
Company Price Change % Change
Bank of America Corp... 17.62 0.09 0.51%
Apple Inc 111.78 -0.87 -0.77%
General Electric Co 25.62 0.48 1.91%
Intel Corp 36.37 -0.65 -1.76%
Microsoft Corp 47.66 0.14 0.29%
Data as of Dec 19

Sections

New York Magazine reporter Jessica Pressler, who has been caught up in controversy this past week, will not be moving on to a new job at Bloomberg News. More

Investors beware: These 5 global crises are likely to rattle the stock market and world economy. More

Forums in dark corners of the web sell the kinds of hacks that befell Sony. More

Unilever sued Hampton Creek over its egg-free mayonnaise spread Just Mayo. But the company behind Best Foods and Hellman's mayonnaise has now dropped the lawsuit. More

The income of the top 1% jumped significantly in 2012, far outpacing inflation. Not only did this group make a larger share of the country's income, their share of total taxes also jumped from 35% to 38%. More

Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.