A View from Brittany Sauser

Man vs. Machine on Jeopardy!

IBM sees the game show as the next big test for artificial intelligence.

  • April 27, 2009

IBM has announced that it is developing a computer to compete on the game show Jeopardy! If the system can outwit human contestants–by comprehending and responding to a variety of questions more rapidly–artificial intelligence will have made a significant advance, the computer’s developers say.

Back in 1997, IBM’s chess-playing supercomputer Deep Blue famously beat then world champion Garry Kasparov in a highly publicized match. The event was symbolic in that it showed that computers could outsmart humans at a game once considered too intellectually challenging for a machine to master. Even so, chess is a game with well-defined rules and limits. Playing Jeopardy!, in contrast, requires a computer to deal with a variety of subject matters, from politics to pop culture, and to answer questions based on clues that involve analyzing subtle meanings, riddles, and puns. Jeopardy! might seem a lot simpler than chess, but for a machine, it’s a far harder challenge.

According to the New York Times,

Under the rules of the match that the company has negotiated with the “Jeopardy!” producers, the computer will not have to emulate all human qualities. It will receive questions as electronic text. The human contestants will both see the text of each question and hear it spoken by the show’s host, Alex Trebek.

The computer will respond with a synthesized voice to answer questions and to choose follow-up categories. I.B.M. researchers said they planned to move a Blue Gene supercomputer to Los Angeles for the contest. To approximate the dimensions of the challenge faced by the human contestants, the computer will not be connected to the Internet, but will make its answers based on text that it has “read,” or processed and indexed, before the show …

I.B.M. will not reveal precisely how large the system’s internal database would be. The actual amount of information could be a significant fraction of the Web now indexed by Google, but artificial intelligence researchers said that having access to more information would not be the most significant key to improving the system’s performance.

IBM has already conducted some laboratory demonstrations of the program and still has some bugs to work out, such as getting the machine to understand the way that Jeopardy! clues are offered and what it should be searching for, leaving some experts skeptical that the computer program will vastly change the field.

According to the show’s producers, an episode of Jeopardy! will be aired (at an unspecified date) pitting the IBM system–named Watson, after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson Sr.–against several human players.

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