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TCA Press Tour 2011: Humanity in 'Jeopardy!'?

January 9, 2011 |  4:19 pm

Watson is the name of the IBM computer that will challenge two human "Jeorpardy!" champions next month for a million-dollar prize. It will be the first time such a machine has starred on the famous quiz show, if you don't count Alex Trebek.

Just how smart is Watson? Naturally, the computer has been in training with his IBM creators, and here's how the 10-refrigerator-sized contestant answered the following question: What do grasshoppers eat? Watson's answer: Kosher.

Bet you didn't know that.

"That was one of my favorites," said David Ferrucci, lead Watson scientist, speaking via satellite to reporters at the winter TV Press Tour on Sunday in Pasadena. "He's developed since then though."

Watson's difficulty discerning the appropriate response points up the immense challenge facing his geek squad of programmers and developers. Yes, Google is amazing, but it still can't give you precisely the answer you want — yet. That's why there's a long list of top answers that pop up — not a single response. And if you're competing on "Jeopardy!" you must account for — within a matter of seconds — the nuances of the English language, deliberate word play and puns that come with the popular quiz show. It isn't easy, even for a computer.

Watson's showdown will be against  Ken Jennings, who set the "Jeopardy!" record for the most consecutive games (74), and Brad Rutter, who won the highest cumulative amount ever by a single player ($3.25 million). Apparently, Jennings and Rutter are not machines either. The men-versus-machine contest will consist of two matches and will be aired Feb. 14-16. (PBS' "NOVA" will broadcast a behind-the-scenes look at the development of Watson on Feb. 9.)

What if Watson wins, does that mean Skynet (See "The Terminator" mythology) will soon be exterminating humanity, asked a reporter. The scientists, one from M.I.T., the other a MacArthur genius grant winner, laughed.

"We knew somebody was going to bring up Skynet," said Rodney Brooks, a professor of Robotics at MIT. "I don't think we need to worry about the machines getting rid of people any time soon.... We can relax for a few hundred years."

— Martin Miller

Photo: "Jeopardy!" champion Ken Jennings with host Alex Trebek. Photo credit: "Jeopardy!"