Man versus machine on a quiz show
In the contest of man versus machine, IBM has always rooted for the machines. In 1997, its Deep Blue supercomputer beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Fourteen years later, the company is ready for another showdown.
This week, on 14, 15 and 16 February, an IBM supercomputer named Watson is competing in the game show Jeopardy! against that show's all-time champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.
In Jeopardy!, contestants are given an answer and must think of the question that goes with it. To win, they must have a broad scope of general knowledge, understand wordplay and be able to connect pieces of trivia. They must also be faster than the other players.
Watson, built from 90 servers using 16 terabytes of memory, functions basically as a giant search engine. Instead of creating a special database, however, its creators fed it information in the form of encyclopedias, dictionaries, and works of literature and let the computer find connections on its own.
Using a single processor, Watson's software takes two hours to respond to a single Jeopardy! clue. But with its current configuration of 2,880 processor cores, it needs only two to six seconds, the same as a human player. And the more Watson plays the game, the smarter it gets.
In the first round, Watson tied with Rutter, with Jennings somewhat behind. In the second round, it was far ahead of both humans. What will Watson do with the $1 million prize money if it wins? Perhaps pay off some of its own cost? Watson is believed to have cost between one and two billion dollars.