'Watson' the computer creams human 'Jeopardy!' champs

Posted: 8:17 PM, February 16, 2011

CHICAGO -- An IBM computer creamed two human champions on the television game show "Jeopardy!" today in a triumph of artificial intelligence.

"I for one welcome our new computer overlords," contestant Ken Jennings -- who holds the "Jeopardy!" record of 74 straight wins -- cheekily wrote on his answer screen at the conclusion of the much-hyped three-day showdown.

"Watson" -- named after Thomas Watson, the founder of the US technology giant -- made some funny flubs in the game, but prevailed by beating his human opponents to the buzzer again and again.

The final tally from the two games: Watson at $77,147, Jennings at $24,000 and $21,600 for reigning champion Brad Rutter -- who previously won a record $3.25 million on the quiz show.

"Watson is fast, knows a lot of stuff, and can really dominate a match," host Alex Trebek said at the opening of Wednesday's match.

Watson, which is not connected to the internet, plays the game by crunching through multiple algorithms at dizzying speed and attaching a percentage score to what it believes is the correct response.

"Jeopardy!," which first aired on US television in 1964, tests a player's knowledge in a range of categories, from geography to politics to history to sports and entertainment.

In a twist on traditional game play, contestants are provided with clues and need to supply the questions.

The complex language of the brain-teasers meant Watson didn't merely have to have access to a vast database of information, it also had to understand what the clue meant.

One impressive display was when Watson answered "What is United Airlines" to the clue "Nearly 10 million Youtubers saw Dave Carrol's clip called this 'friendly skies' airline 'breaks guitars.'"

But a Final Jeopardy flub prompted one IBM engineer to wear a Toronto Blue Jays jacket to the second day of taping and Trebek to joke that he'd learned Toronto was a US city.

Watson had earlier answered "What is Toronto????" to the question: "Its largest airport is named for a WWII hero. Its second largest, for a WWII battle" under the category "US Cities."

Watson, which has been under development at IBM Research labs in New York since 2006, is the latest machine developed by IBM to challenge mankind.

In 1997, an IBM computer named "Deep Blue" defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov in a six-game match.

Watson's success was a remarkable achievement and an historic moment for the field of artificial intelligence, said Oren Etzioni, a professor computer science at the University of Washington.

"Jeopardy is a particularly difficult form of natural language because it's so open ended and it's so full of puns and quirky questions," he told AFP.

The next step is to see how this technology can be applied to applications with real economic and social impacts.

"The day where robots will keep us as pets is still very far away," Etzioni said.

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