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The computer wore Jeopardy’s buzzer



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    An IBM computer beat chess champ Gerry Kasparov in 1997. Now another one will try to vanquish top Jeopardy! players Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

    Supercomputer Watson, named for IBM’s founder, was designed specifically to compete in the long-running quiz show; it can understand natural human language and search its vast database to find the answer. Late this week, the show will tape a match pitting Watson against Jennings, the longest player in the game show’s history, and Rutter, the all-time money winner. The match will air the week of Feb. 14, as a two-game tournament played over three nights.

    But on Feb. 9, PBS science series Nova will offer Smartest Machine on Earth: Can a Computer Win on Jeopardy!, detailing the development of Watson’s artificial intelligence and preparations for the match. “He” can search the answer and buzz in, though he lacks fingers and the entire machine–the size of 10 refrigerators–can’t physically be on stage.

    “We really didn’t understand what this was going to mean,” says Jeopardy! executive producer Harry Friedman, who calls the game “the perfect art form for developing this technology,” because it requires breadth of knowledge, speed and absolute precision in its answers that even Google couldn’t touch.

    Not to mention the tricky questions in such categories as “before and after”: A candy bar that became a Supreme Court justice? Baby Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Watson got it right. But the computer isn’t infallible: Asked in test runs what grasshoppers eat, he answered, “Kosher,” says David Ferrucci, IBM’s lead scientist on the project. “It’s not just the category itself, but as you see the clues revealed, and you see what the answers are, you start to realize what the writers are looking for,” he says, and that complex task of reacting to previous answers is one computers can’t easily handle.

    If Watson wins the $1 million prize, it will be donated to charity; if one of the others win, half the prize will go to charity. But Jennings, for one, is dubious; the game is simply too complex, as he tells the special’s producers: “This is too daunting a task for a computer.” —Gary Levin