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IBM computer named Watson will battle 'Jeopardy' champs for $1 million

January 13, 2011 |  3:30 pm

 

An IBM computer took on two of the best contestants that "Jeopardy" has to offer Thursday. But that competition was just for practice. Later, the computer, named Watson, will take on the two former champions for a prize of $1 million.

Watson will be the third contestant in a round of shows to be broadcast Feb. 14-16, taking on Brad Rutter, who has won more than $3 million on the game show, and Ken Jennings, who set a record with 74 consecutive "Jeopardy" wins in 2004-05 in which he racked up more than $2.5 million.

Watson, about as big as 10 refrigerators, has had its software updated for "Jeopardy" so it can activate a signaling button of its own, just as its human competitors will have to do, the Associated Press reported.

"Watson felt that in order for the game to be as fair as possible, just as a human has to physically hit a buzzer, the system also would have to do that," Jennifer McTighe, an IBM spokeswoman, told the AP. "Now Watson has its own real buzzer."

Thursday's practice round took place on a specially built stage at IBM's Yorktown Heights, N.Y., research center, about 40 miles north of New York City, the AP said. "Jeopardy" is normally taped at the Sony studios in Culver City, but the Watson-vs.-humans clash will take place on IBM's Yorktown Heights home turf.

While the winner will get $1 million, second place isn't bad, with a prize of $300,000. Third place will be awarded $200,000.

If Watson wins, IBM has said it will give the winnings to charity. Rutter and Jennings plan to give away half of their prizes, the AP said.

And, in case you're wondering, Watson is named for IBM founder Thomas J. Watson.

Alex.trebek  The computer isn't going into the competition cold. IBM said Watson has sparred a bit in practice rounds with former "Jeopardy" contestants, though the company isn't saying how the computer fared, the AP reported.

Watson took about four years to build and is made up of 10 racks of IBM servers running Linux with 15 terabytes of memory, the report said.

Over those four years, IBM has filled Watson with about 200 million pages' worth of information from encyclopedias, dictionaries, books, news and movie scripts, the AP said.

Like its human competitors, Watson won't have Internet access during the games, so Googling an answer won't be an option, the report said.

This isn't the first time IBM has sent a computer to take on a human. In 1997, the company's Deep Blue computer challenged chess champ Garry Kasparov. Deep Blue beat Kasparov.

IBM said Watson would be able to help the company advance its computing technology for quicker and more accurate use in hospitals and law firms, according to the AP.

Due to Watson's enormous size, the computer won't actually be on stage. Instead, an IBM logo on an LCD screen that "fluctuates to reflect its processes" will represent Watson in competition, the AP said.

And, of course, Alex Trebek will host.

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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

twitter.com/nateog

Top photo: Former "Jeopardy" champions Ken Jennings, left, and Brad Rutter are beaten to the buzzer by Watson during a practice session for the TV quiz show in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Credit: Seth Wenig/Associated Press. Bottom photo: "Jeopardy" host Alex Trebek. Credit: Ben Hider/Getty Images

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