Man vs. Machine: IBM's Watson ties for first on Jeopardy

In a classic battle of man vs. machine on Jeopardy tonight, it was a tie.

Human competitor Brad Ruttner tied with Watson, a supercomputer created by IBM. Another human rival, Ken Jennings, isn’t far behind in the first of a two-game tournament. The match showed that IBM’s artificial intelligence technology is a force to be reckoned with, and in the future, it’s only going to get better.

At first, Watson was running away with the show. But at the close of the game, Watson and Rutter were tied with $5,000 in winnings, and Jennings had $2,000. Some 25 IBM Research scientists across the world toiled for four years on Watson, which is IBM’s spiritual successor to Deep Blue, the supercomputer that defeated chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov in 1997. IBM describes Watson as “an analytical computing system that specializes in natural human language and provides specific answers to complex questions at rapid speeds.”

Rutter made the first category choice and beat Watson to the buzzer, allowing Rutter to answer the question. Then Watson took the next questions by storm. It answered 11 of the next 15 questions correctly in the first half of the show. At the start of the second half, Watson had $5,200, Rutter had $1,000, and Jennings only had $200. Then, the humans made their comeback, beating Watson to the buzzer a few times. And Watson got some answers wrong in the second half. Watson can’t adjust its answers to what the other players say, so it simply answers with whatever comes up as its top answer.

Jennings said “20s” when prompted to say the decade when Oreo cookies were introduced. Watson then said “1920s” and got the answer wrong again. IBM focused on Jeopardy for its artificial intelligence research because requires a huge swatch of knowledge in order to play it well. Watson did great with Beatles questions, but pretty poorly in the “decades” historical category.

Our own Devindra Hardawar got to watch Watson play Jennings and Rutter in a practice match in January.

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