IBM’s Watson obliterates humans in first Jeopardy round

IBM Watson JeopardyAfter tying for first place last night, IBM’s Watson supercomputer trounced its human competitors tonight in the conclusion of the first round of its Jeopardy challenge.

Watson ended the night with $35,754, while former human Jeopardy champs Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings scored $10,000 and $4,800 respectively.

That’s a huge divide, and it goes to show just how much IBM has progressed since its supercomputer Deep Blue defeated chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov in 1997. It’s difficult to imagine what the next generation of supercomputers will defeat humans in given another decade.

IBM describes Watson as “an analytical computing system that specializes in natural human language and provides specific answers to complex questions at rapid speeds.” That Watson can tackle a game as complex as Jeopardy shows just how much IBM has progressed since Deep Blue, which relied heavily on mathematical calculations. Watson instead has to interpret human language, a far more difficult task.

Watson ruled the game for most of the night, winning most question buzzes and giving its competitors little time to score. In an early Daily Double question, Watson wagered an oddly precise $6,435, which drew laughs from the crowd. Jeopardy host Alex Trebek previously noted that Watson had a habit of odd Daily Double wagers, which has befuddled its IBM researchers.

Watson also showed the limits of its cyberbrain in Final Jeopardy. In the category of U.S. Cities, the competitors were given a clue about a city whose largest airport is named for a World War II hero, and its second largest is named for a World War II battle. Watson ended up guessing Toronto, but wisely it bet less than $947, so it didn’t take away from its lead too much.

According to Stephen Baker, author of Final Jeopardy, a book about the Watson Jeopardy challenge, the supercomputer has difficulty with the Final Jeopardy portion of the game because it can’t refuse to answer if it has a bad guess. With a normal question, Watson can just choose not to answer and look smarter in the process. Baker spoke to All Things Digital about Watson’s mistake, where he elaborated on how it can appear both smart and stupid at the same time. IBM has also put up a blog post that delves into Watson’s Final Jeopardy trouble.

Video of the match isn’t available online yet, but you can check out a preview match between Watson, Jennings and Rutter (where the humans were also destroyed).