Jeopardy Computer Pits AI Skills Against Humanity

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Meet Watson: a computer with artificial intelligence capable of understanding the nuances in human speech. Watson is so smart – and so knowledgeable  about humanity – that it is going to take on the grand champions of Jeopardy, America’s favorite quiz show. But more on that later.

What Watson means in the greater scheme of things is that IBM has created a computer that is capable of understanding what a person wants to know, even if it isn’t phrased directly, and a device can sort through vast amounts of information to find a logical and, more than often than not, correct answer. The computer was created in conjunction with IBM’s 100th anniversary and is drawing similarities to Deep Blue, the famed computer that beat our chess champions. However, when it comes to artificial intelligence including Deep Blue, the devices normally can understand simple commands but are never smart enough to wade through complex and tricky statements like the questions and categories on Jeopardy. Watson, which took four years to develop, can not only understand human language, but it can pull out an answer from within a body of text housed in its servers.

“It’s a pretty huge step, not a minor step,” said IBM Vice President Mark Dean, who led the teams that invented the ISA bus and the first one-gigahertz computer processor chip. “The next step for us is usability. How can we make Watson usable?”

Watson is completely offline, just like his competitors Ken Jennings (who holds the record for most consecutive wins in Jeopardy) and Brad Rutter (who holds the record for the most amount of money won on Jeopardy). It can’t understand human speech, but he can “read” text, pull the appropriate information and assign a percentage of how correct an answer is. He does get mixed up, for example, when asked a question about who starred in The Soloist during a practice round, Watson overwhelmingly decided in favor of Beethoven, which prompted Rutter to joke that he always confused Jamie Foxx and Beethoven. For the most part, though, its “gut instinct” is right. When his color of his avatar is green he’s absolutely sure, yellow somewhat sure and orange very unsure. And yes, he has to push a button to answer in just like his competitors. Both Jennings and Rutter have mixed feelings whether or not they want technology to trump human knowledge, and both joked that they were scared of Watson’s revenge (or his smarter future progeny, Rutter joked) if they beat the computer. “My friend told me, ‘Remember John Henry.’ I said, ‘Forget John Henry. Remember John Connor!’” Jennings said.

“Watson doesn’t have emotions, but it knows of emotions,” IBM senior vice president and director of research Doctor John Kelly III said with a smile.

At the end of the practice round, Watson had answered most of the questions correct and was leading with $4,400 against his two competitors. However, Jennings was close behind at $3400 (and had only answered one less question correct than Watson), and Rutter was trailing with $1200. But in Jeopardy, when things can change easily with a Daily Double, with Final Jeopardy or with simple bad luck by getting a category you don’t know, it’s still anyone’s or anythings game. Sure enough, a feed of another practice round following the press conference showed Ken Jennings leading the competition with Watson not that far behind.

More on TIME.com:

Can a New Supercomputer Beat Jeopardy!’s Best?

Alex Meets Auto-Tune: Jeopardy’s Host Goes Electronica

Techland Interview: Alex Trebek

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