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OUTSMARTED: IBM Supercomputer Beats Stanford, Cal in Jeopardy Match

The Big Game got a geeky preview in a battle between IBM's Watson, the Cardinals and the Golden Bears.

The Cardinals and the Golden Bears may together be best known for their annual gridiron showdown, but the two enemies fought a decidedly more high-tech opponent at Stanford Thursday night.

In a mock Jeopardy! game-show match, the brightest students of both universities tested their mettle against the formidable Watson, a IBM super-computer that has crushed true Jeopardy champions since IBM started building it four years ago.

Ken Jennings, the winner of 74 episodes in 2004, lost to Watson in 2010. So did Brad Rutter, the undefeated Jeopardy! champ of 2000. And the college hopefuls on Thursday suffered the same fate in the CEMEX Auditorium on Stanford University campus. 

The categories were the same, such as sports MVPs, classical musical and Americana. The clear discrepancy, however, was how badly the humans wanted to win and how nonchalant Watson, named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, nailed the buzzer on time. Both college teams hit the buzzer early - a quarter-second penalty in Jeopardy - on several questions, leaving the more calculated Watson to reap the win. 

"You could tell everyone was hitting the buzzer early," said Stanford team member and computer science graduate student Bill Rowan, after the match. "We knew the answers to most of the questions."

The expose was part of IBM's charge to build something smarter than a search engine. Eric Brown, an IBM research scientist, hatched out the possible differences in an opening lecture, claiming that the next the step for someone seeking information online will weigh heavily on the capability of the resource that person is using.

A search engine might yield 10 or a million pages based on a three-word search, Brown told the audience of roughly 400. But the engine can't analyze the results according to what the user wants, he said. That analytical ability is Watson's goal, he told the audience.

Watson wasn't in the building, though. He is a bit cumbersome to transport from Yorktown Heights, New York, IBM's headquarters. Think of ten refrigerator-size server racks behind a glass window. Each rack has 32 processor cores, resulting in 2,880 processors, each boasting about 3.55 gigahertz. That's the muscle it takes to pour through roughly 200 million pages of data when Watson answers a Jeopardy question.

Thursday night he won the match, remotely, over the Internet.

Watson is artificial intelligence, or "AI", as we know it in modern-day Hollywood folklore. But despite Watson's knowledge for every NBA coach in the 1970's along with the most obscure classical music composers, he is far from taking over the world, or even thinking about it.

"It's not thinking," Brown said before the match. "This is not an (artificial intelligent) being."

Watson's future lies in information, he said, such as the healthcare industry. Watson's ability to cross reference, and cross reference again, offers a promising resource to doctors, Brown said. Plug in symptoms, DNA, family history and general statistics from the overall population, and doctors will diagnose a patient better, he told the audience.

For Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley, students, however, Watson seemed to make people upset. He won with $33,799 against Berkeley's $32,799. Stanford finished with $17,600. 

The dollars were imaginary. But the potential is real, said Bernir Meyerson, another IBM research scientist.

"Watson is not just about playing a game'" Meyers said. "It's a fundamental game-changer. It's another opportunity to change the world." 

randy albin November 18, 2011 at 08:26 PM
it might be more entertaining to just watch the tv game show every night
Aaron Selverston November 18, 2011 at 10:01 PM
You think so? I've always loved Jeopardy, but watching a machine outsmart a human is like drinking fine wine.
Banks Albach November 18, 2011 at 11:42 PM
Especially hearing Watson pronounce "candied" as "can-deed."

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