Game-show challenge puts artificial intelligence to the test

The computer is powered by 10 racks of IBM servers running the Linux operating system.

Artificial intelligence is about to be put to the test in a trial that could reveal just how far researchers have come in designing computers that can “think” like human beings: On Jan. 13, a computer designed by IBM will take on two former Jeopardy! champions in a practice round leading up to the main event.

It’s the size of 10 refrigerators, and it swallows encyclopedias whole, but IBM’s hardware and software system—named “Watson”—was lacking one thing it needed to battle the greatest champions from the quiz show: It couldn’t hit a buzzer.

But that’s been fixed, and on Jan. 13 Watson was to play a practice round against Ken Jennings, who won a record 74 consecutive Jeopardy! games in 2004-05, and Brad Rutter, who won a record of nearly $3.3 million in prize money.

Jeopardy! felt that in order for the game to be as fair as possible, just as a human has to physically hit a buzzer, the system also would have to do that,” IBM spokeswoman Jennifer McTighe said. “Now Watson has its own real buzzer.”

The practice round was to be played on a stage at an IBM research center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., 38 miles north of Manhattan and across the country from the game show’s home in Culver City, Calif. A real contest among the three, to be televised Feb. 14-16, also will be played at IBM, but the date hasn’t been made public.

The winner of the televised match will be awarded $1 million. Second place will get $300,000, and third place $200,000. IBM, which has headquarters in Armonk, N.Y., said it would give its winnings to charity, while Jennings and Rutter would give away half theirs.

The practice round is the first public demonstration of the computer system, IBM said. But Watson, which is named for IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, has been engaging in secretive practice rounds with other past Jeopardy! contestants, McTighe said.

The company won’t say how Watson did in those sparring matches.

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