Can a New Supercomputer Beat Jeopardy!’s Best?

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Beating a human at chess – a game largely dependent on probability and more algorithmic forms of strategy – is one thing, but can a new supercomputer developed by IBM win at a game that requires deeper levels of critical thinking? In particular, can a specialized machine beat the human mind at Jeopardy!?

That’s the question we’ll see answered when “Watson,” a new breed of Question Answer (QA) system developed by IBM’s scientists, takes on Jeopardy!’s winningest champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, early in 2011. And no, it won’t be connected to the Internet.

Per IBM’s website:

Code-named “Watson” after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, the IBM computing system is designed to rival the human mind’s ability to understand the actual meaning behind words, distinguish between relevant and irrelevant content, and ultimately, demonstrate confidence to deliver precise final answers.

Ken Jennings is Jeopardy!’s most famous competitor, winning 74 games in a row after the show changed its format to allow for returning victors in 2004.  Also flanking Watson will be Brad Rutter, the winner of an unprecedented three tournament titles and the highest money-earner in the game show’s storied history. (More on Techland: Is Your Browsing History Accessible Without Your Consent?)

In 1997, a different supercomputer developed by IBM dubbed “Deep Blue” was able to defeat human chess champion Garry Kasparov in a grueling series of matches, the difference being that it was able to win via “brute force,” or the ability to generate and test an exhaustive number of in-game variables within a relatively short amount of time.

Jeopardy!, on the other hand, requires its players to ingest and access different recesses of information – history, language and pop culture, for starters – and then reflexively synthesize an answer (in the form of a question!) within a really short window of time.

But who knows? IBM is optimistic about Watson’s future implications, stating on their website, “If we can teach a computer to play Jeopardy!, what could it mean for science, finance, healthcare and business?”

On the other hand, could a Watson victory mean we’re just that much closer to a bleak, impending singularity?

Tune in Feb. 14 -16, 2011 to find out.

[via NY Times]

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