As if Jeopardy! contestants weren’t already feeling the heat from competitors like Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the show is now poised to add a new twist to the panel of competitors, at least temporarily. Watson, a supercomputer developed by IBM to be the world’s most advanced “question-answering” machine, is prepared to play against some of the best former Jeopardy! competitors as early as this fall.

What sets Watson apart from other technology, such as search engines like Google, is that it can take a question in natural English, figure out what you mean, and come up with an exact answer. Comprehension of natural language, of course, is incredibly important for a successful Jeopardy! contestant, who has to grapple with clues like: “Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar. If you know this Phillips Academy cheerleader, stand up and holler!” (Answer: Who is George W. Bush?)

Like every Jeopardy competitor, Watson can only rely on information already stored in its “brain” — it doesn’t have the ability to search the Internet for the answers to clues presented. Unlike other competitors, however, Watson has millions of documents already stored from which it can glean the correct answer. Of course, the computer has to sort through the tricky clues to glean their meaning before coming up with an appropriate response, and understanding the meaning isn’t always easy even for humans with the ability to reason. Watson’s incredible memory and fast response times are critical, but supposedly its best advantage in Jeopardy! is the fact that it is emotionless and therefore not subject to the stress, lack of confidence, and nervousness that are often the downfall for human competitors.

While the ability for a computer to play Jeopardy! and answer silly trivia questions may seem like a childish waste of more than three years of research and resources, the implications of the technology employed by Watson are far reaching. In the future, services like Google will not only use algorithms to turn our search language into a list of available documents and web pages, but will able to respond to difficult questions and come up with the exact result sought. IBM anticipates that it will have commercial versions of Watson on the market in the next two years, allowing businesses to have quicker and more accurate access to the information they need. Of course, this improvement in information access will likely cost a potential customer millions of dollars and require the use of a $1 million IBM server.

So the question all of us would-be Jeopardy! stars are asking: what sort of threat does Watson pose to our chances of being the next big winner?

Compared to a computer that can search through millions of documents within seconds to produce the correct answer, I can’t imagine that my ability to barely remember what I ate for lunch yesterday, let alone which May holiday was celebrated in 1934 with a stamp featuring a famous painting by Whistler (Answer: What is Mother’s Day?), could possibly compete. But, while impressive, Watson’s knowledge and ability to sort through the cleverly worded clues is far from perfect. The technology is certainly innovative and important for the future but, as yet, it’s not likely to completely decimate the competition.

To see for yourself, see if you can beat Watson in this online trivia challenge. I lost, but was fairly surprised that I actually had a fighting chance.

Christine Hawes

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