Watson won a practice round against two former Jeopardy! champions in advance of the official contest.

In a huge step forward for artificial intelligence, a computer known as Watson won a practice round against two former Jeopardy! champions in advance of the official contest.

The clue: It’s the size of 10 refrigerators, has access to the equivalent of 200 million pages of information, and knows how to answer in the form of a question.

The correct response: “What is the computer IBM developed to become a Jeopardy! whiz?”

Watson, which IBM claims as a profound advance in artificial intelligence, edged out game-show champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on Jan. 13 in its first public test, a short practice round ahead of a million-dollar tournament that will be televised next month.

Later, the human contestants made jokes about the Terminator movies and robots from the future. Indeed, four questions into the round you had to wonder if the rise of the machines was already upon us—in a trivial sense at least.

Watson tore through a category about female archaeologists, repeatedly activating a mechanical button before either Ken Jennings or Brad Rutter could buzz in, then nailing the questions: “What is Jericho?” “What is Crete?”

Its gentle male voice even scored a laugh when it said, “Let’s finish ‘Chicks Dig Me.’”

Jennings, who won a record 74 consecutive Jeopardy! games in 2004-05, then salvaged the category, winning $1,000 by identifying the prehistoric human skeleton Dorothy Garrod found in Israel: “What is Neanderthal?”

He and Rutter, who won a record of nearly $3.3 million in prize money, had more success on questions about children’s books and the initials “M.C.,” though Watson knew about Harold and the Purple Crayon and that it was Maurice Chevalier who sang “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” in the film Gigi.

The computer pulled in $4,400 in the practice round, compared with $3,400 for Jennings and $1,200 for Rutter.


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