Game-show challenge puts artificial intelligence to the test

The system, which is powered by 10 racks of IBM servers running the Linux operating system and has 15 terabytes of random-access memory, or RAM, has been in the works for four years.

It has digested encyclopedias, dictionaries, books, news, movie scripts, and more, IBM says. It has access to the equivalent of 200 million pages of content. It is not connected to the internet, so it does not do web searches.

The company says Watson rivals a human’s ability to answer questions posed in natural language—rather than computer code—with speed, accuracy, and confidence. Unlike earlier computers, it can deal with Jeopardy’s! subtleties of language, including puns and riddles.

IBM scientist David Ferrucci, a leader of the Watson team, said last month that using Jeopardy! to develop the computer system “is going to drive the technology in the right directions.”

“It asks all kinds of things,” he said. “It has the confidence aspect—don’t answer if you don’t think you’re right. You also have to do it really quickly.”

Watson is reminiscent of IBM’s famous Deep Blue computer, which defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. But while chess is well-defined and mathematical, Jeopardy! presents a more open-ended challenge.

Winning at Jeopardy! is not the main prize, IBM says. The artificial-intelligence technology could mean speedier diagnosing of medical conditions and researching of legal case law, for example.

“This could be something important,” said Jeopardy! executive producer Harry Friedman, “and we want to be a part of it.”

Each contestant will have a podium, just as on normal Jeopardy! shows hosted by Alex Trebek. But given the size of the servers, Watson will be represented by an IBM Smart Planet icon on an LCD screen that fluctuates to reflect its processes.

And just as humans have been doing for 47 years on the game show, Watson has learned to come up with an answer in the form of a question.