AI trounces humans in Jeopardy preview

We've been following IBM's Jeopardy!-playing computer, Watson, for quite a while now, and the big day is coming up where Watson will take on flesh and blood champions in a full-blown Jeopardy! game. A demo round took place today, and it looks like the human contestants will definitely have their work cut out for them.

Today's demonstration round between Watson and Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter was the standard game that you're probably familiar with. Watson the computer plays by the same rules as the humans, listening to the questions as they're asked, thinking up an answer, and then activating its mechanical buzzer before answering in an artificial voice.

The categories for this game were full of Jeopardy!'s typical clever wordplay, such as "Chicks Dig Me," where the answers questions were all about female archaeologists. Despite having much less experience with chicks than the other two panelists (at least, I should hope that's the case), Watson managed to run most of that category right off the bat, clearly intimidating its human rivals.

Watson itself is embodied in a LCD screen that sits behind its podium. On the screen is an abstract graphic that changes color to reflect how certain Watson is about its answer, and other screens around the room show the audience what other possibilities Watson is considering. That fact that Watson has a distinctive personal presence is certainly effective, and even though it doesn't have a face or a body or anything like that, the audience at least seemed to get a kick out of Watson's robotic voice saying things like "let's finish chicks dig me."

At the end of the first part of this preview round, Watson was in first with $4,400, Jennings was in second with $3,400, and Rutter was still a presence with $1,200. Things are going to get interesting when the full game goes live on TV on February.

Tomorrow Jeopardy! will tape the real encounter between Jennings, Rutter, and Watson. Are the human competitors nervous, especially since they haven't actually played the game in five years? "Not now," Rutter says, "but when Watson's progeny come back to kill me from the future." Jennings insists that he's feeling cool. And setting aside his own pride for a moment, Jennings says it's worth noting that humans built the thing. Whoever wins, we win.

Engadget has a video of the first part of the demo round, and it's absolutely worth watching.

Watson, via Engadget and Discover

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