“Man vs. Machine” for $400, Please, Alex

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Interpretation

For the first time in history, a computer will compete on Jeopardy!.

Meet Watson.

Watson is considered to be the smartest computer on Earth. Designed by IBM, Watson was created with the specific goal of being able to compete – and win – on Jeopardy!. Starting this Monday, Watson will be competing against the game show’s all-time top contestants, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, for a prize of one million dollars. Will Watson be able to succeed?

Creating a computer that can answer Jeopardy!‘s questions seems simple at first – just download every piece of information from every encyclopedia, book, play, movie, Wikipedia, etc. into a database, right? Wrong. This is where the trickery that is Jeopardy! comes in.

IBM had to create a computer that could understand the nuances of human language. Jeopardy! is famous for subtle clues in the questions, wicked wordplay, and requiring contestants to piece together multiple points of information from grammar and syntax in order to find the correct answer. For a computer to win at Jeopardy!, it needs a level of artificial intelligence that has all the data of Google but can “think” like a person.

It took four years, but IBM thinks they’ve done it. Composed of 90 computer servers – basically ten refrigerators of hardware – thousands of algorithms, and over a million lines of new code, Watson is ready. The best Jeopardy! champions give correct answers approximately 90% of the time, and Watson’s is right up there with them.

So will Watson be the next Jeopardy! champion? Possibly. But, then again, Watson’s still known to miss a few. For example, when asked during a practice run “It’s what grasshoppers eat,” Watson replied, “What is kosher?”

Along with watching Watson compete on February 14-16, be sure to watch Nova’s Smartest Machine on Earth, the story of Watson’s creation and how scientists are teaching computers to think and learn.

Who do you think will win this Jeopardy! championship, man or machine?

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2 Responses to ““Man vs. Machine” for $400, Please, Alex”


  1. 1 tburton1004 February 10, 2011 at 11:22 am

    When I was little (back in the day, when Art Fleming was host), if I was home sick from school, I always watched Jeopardy!. If I could get ONE question right, I felt pretty smart! Now when I’m home visiting my folks, watching Jeopardy! is a family affair, with all of us calling out questions and being smarty pants. I don’t think the computer stands a chance.

  2. 2 Katie February 10, 2011 at 11:25 am

    If you call my grandma between 6:00 and 6:30, she won’t answer because she’s watching Jeopardy!. And if you get her, my dad and myself in the same room, it turns into a yelling match.

    I’m not sure who’ll win, but I think Watson has a fair chance. We’ll just all have to watch and see…


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