Watson is powered by 10 racks of IBM servers running the Linux operating system. It’s not connected to the internet but has digested encyclopedias, dictionaries, books, news, movie scripts, and more.

The system is the result of four years of work by IBM researchers around the globe, and although it was designed to compete on Jeopardy! the technology has applications well beyond the game, said John Kelly III, IBM director of research.

He said the technology could help doctors sift through massive amounts of information to draw conclusions for patient care, and it could aid professionals in a wide array of other fields.

“What Watson does and has demonstrated is the ability to advance the field of artificial intelligence by miles,” he said.

Watson, named for IBM founder Thomas J. 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 involving troves of information and complexities of human language that would confound a normal computer.

“Language is ambiguous; it’s contextual; it’s implicit,” said IBM scientist David Ferrucci, a leader of the Watson team. Sorting out the context—especially in a game show filled with hints and jokes—is an enormous job for the computer, which also must analyze how certain it is of an answer and whether it should risk a guess, he said.

The massive computer was not behind its podium between Jennings and Rutter; instead, it was represented by an IBM Smart Planet icon on an LCD screen.

The practice round was 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, will be played at IBM on Jan. 14.

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

In a question-and-answer session with reporters after the practice round, Rutter and Jennings made joking reference to the jump in technology Watson represents.


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