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 16,982.59 22.02 0.13%
Nasdaq 4,444.91 -4.65 -0.10%
S&P 500 1,978.91 0.57 0.03%
Treasuries 2.49 0.02 0.89%
Data as of 6:12am ET
Company Price Change % Change
Apple Inc 99.02 1.35 1.38%
Facebook Inc 74.92 -0.27 -0.36%
Bank of America Corp... 15.50 -0.09 -0.58%
Dollar Tree Inc 54.87 -0.08 -0.15%
Family Dollar Stores... 75.74 15.08 24.86%
Data as of Jul 28

Sections

Herbalife shares tumble after the maker of nutritional supplements reports earnings that fall short of analysts' estimates. More

New annual report from U.S. government shows the long-term prognosis for Medicare has improved thanks to slower health spending, while the outlook for Social Security remains unchanged. More

Online dating site OkCupid found its users were more likely to have conversations when it told them they were more compatible than in reality. More

Actor-founded This Bar Saves Lives had Hollywood connections, but learned Start-Up 101 the hard way. More

Steve Mason, a pastor from California, inherited more than $100,000 in student loan debt when his 27-year-old daughter died suddenly in 2009. With interest and late penalties, the debt has since ballooned to $200,000. More

Market indexes 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. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.