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IBM introduces 'Watson,' the first computer 'Jeopardy' contestant, to the world

January 13, 2011 | 10:13 am

There's a new contestant coming to "Jeopardy" — and when show host Alex Trebek introduced this major contender to a large crowd, boy, was its face green. On Thursday, Trebek and others gathered at IBM headquarters in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., to meet Watson, the computer system that IBM spent four years programming to compete on "Jeopardy." (Watson will take on "Jeopardy" all-time champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter Feb. 14 through 16; the clip above offers more background on him.) "The more confident it is, the greener the lines on the globe," said Trebek, referring to the globe icon that appears on the screen of Watson's "Jeopardy" pulpit. "If it doesn’t have any confidence, it’s orange. If Watson is running orange, you know that Ken and Brad will probably get in ahead of him."

Earlier that day, Trebek explained, Watson had once grown very green — only to pull an incorrect response. "The answer we were going for was Jamie Foxx. For 'The Soloist' he learned to play the cello. But Watson came in with 'Who is Beethoven?' And Brad said, 'I always get the two of them mixed up.'"

 But in a practice round held before journalists, Watson held its own against Jennings and Rutter, answering a surprising number of questions correctly, displaying a deep mastery of the show's wordplay, puns and other linguistic subtleties once thought to be understood only by humans. As David A. Ferrucci the principal investigator on the IBM project, explained, Watson is a big jump from Big Blue because of that knowledge. "'Jeopardy' is a very different challenge from chess," he said. "In chess there’s very precise rules and algorithums. Language is ambiguous, contectual, implicit. There's an infinite number of ways the same meaning can be expressed. 'Jeopardy' gave us a way to measure that."

Jennings remained a little anxious about what would happen if he beat Watson, even though a friend assured him that he'd win. “I had a friend tell me, 'Remember John Henry the steel driving man? And I said, 'Screw that! Remember John Connery?” Catching the reference to the Terminator's victim, the audience laughed.

But wouldn't some small part of him and Rutter want Watson to win, if only for the sake of human progress? "Human progress! WE'RE the humans!" Jennings said, laughing.

"Someone had to remind me that humans built this thing," admitted Rutter. "I hadn’t really thought of it that way before." As for losing to Watson, he admitted, "I guess I would say that I wouldn’t like humanity to progess in that way just yet."

— Melissa Maerz