Human vs. machine: IBM supercomputer takes on 'Jeopardy!'

In what could be a leap for AI, IBM programs Watson to take on quiz show champs

Who could possibly unseat the best Jeopardy! players in the history of the game show, Alex?

The answer to that question just might be: an IBM supercomputer.

IBM Monday unveiled Watson, an advanced computing system that engineers hope will be able to compete against humans on the long-running game show Jeopardy!. And the show's producers seem to be up for the challenge as they are soon expected to announce plans to air a show pitting human against machine.

Watson's new Question Answering (QA) software, under development for the past two years, is designed to understand complex questions and to answer them quickly enough to compete on a rapid-fire show like Jeopardy!, according to IBM. IBM noted that to succeed the software will have to be able to understand nuanced questions, slang and riddles, making it -- if it works as advertised -- a leap forward in artificial intelligence.

"The essence of making decisions is recognizing patterns in vast amounts of data, sorting through choices and options, and responding quickly and accurately," said IBM CEO Samuel Palmisano in a statement. "Watson is a compelling example of how the planet -- companies, industries, cities -- is becoming smarter. With advanced computing power and deep analytics, we can infuse business and societal systems with intelligence. This project is the latest example of IBM's longstanding commitment to fundamental research and to overcoming 'grand challenges' in science and technology."

There is, though, a lot still not known about this advanced computer.

Ari Fishkind, a spokesman for IBM, told Computerworld that they're not sure what the configuration for the computer will look like. No word on what chips it will run, how fast it will be able to process data or how big it will be. Fishkind also said there's no word on when Watson will be rolled out or when it will appear on an episode of Jeopardy.

Whatever Watson becomes, IBM researchers are hoping it will be an intelligent system capable of working with humans.

"The challenge is to build a system that, unlike systems before it, can rival the human mind's ability to determine precise answers to natural language questions and to compute accurate confidence in the answers," said David Ferrucci, leader of IBM's Watson project team, in a statement. "This confidence processing ability is key. It greatly distinguishes the IBM approach from conventional search, and is critical to implementing useful business applications of Question Answering."

Twelve years ago, another IBM computer - this one called Deep Blue - competed on another gaming stage. Deep Blue defeated World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov in what has become a famous battle of human vs. machine. That machine was built to calculate 200 million chess moves per second.

Last fall, IBM's Roadrunner inched out a beefed up Cray Inc. XT5 Jaguar system to retain the top spot on the biannual Top500 list of supercomputers.

The IBM Roadrunner, which is installed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, is able to hit 1.105 petaflops, or more than a quadrillion mathematical calculations per second. Cray's Jaguar, the second of only two computers to break the petaflop barrier, grabbed second place on the list, with a top performance of 1.059 petaflops running the Linpack benchmark application.

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