Let the games begin: Watson vs. Jeopardy!

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By Gabrielle Contelmo

In a two-game combined-point match of Jeopardy! aired over three days, a computer named Watson competed against Brad Rutter, the biggest money-winner of all time, and Ken Jennings, the longest-running champion to date.

Though Watson, a system that can understand natural language, answered the first final Jeopardy! question incorrectly by responding with “Toronto” when the category was “U.S. Cities,” it still won the game and went on to prevail in the second game as well. Watson won $1 million for coming in first and IBM donated the winnings to two charities, World Vision and World Community Grid. Rutter and Jennings also donated 50% of their winnings to charities.

John E. Kelly III ‘76, Senior Vice President of IBM, Director of Global Research and a Union Trustee, explained the idea behind the new technology.

“Watson is a computer system composed of both hardware and software, meant to answer questions in any field. It’s designed to do that very, very rapidly…in less than three seconds, which is one reason why it’s so good at Jeopardy!” said Kelly, who is responsible for all of IBM’s advanced research. Kelly also calls Watson a grand challenge and feels that  “this is a huge step forward in computer science,” and possibly one of the largest steps in decades, but that Watson technology is still a long way from human intelligence.

In the future, Kelly hopes that computers will be easier to interact with and aid in decision-making.

“We’re very interested in applying Watson technology to the healthcare and medical field,” says Kelly.

Since new healthcare literature is being developed all the time, Kelly thinks that doctors are now overwhelmed with medical information.

“[Watson technology] will help doctors diagnose diseases and help them with what is the most effective treatment or drug to be used for the patients’ illnesses.”

Kelly also hopes that the advent of this technology will impact the subjects that students are studying. He recognizes that technology and computers play a  critical role in everyday modern society but are not as heavily utilized as they could be.

“I think for most students, especially in liberal arts, that it’s still technology that is not used in the normal course of their studies or in their disciplines, but I think with Watson, it’s pretty clear that now there are computers that are going to be able to interact and work with people on a different level,” said Kelly who also expressed that students in all disciplines will be influenced by the outcome of Watson technology.

“Universities and governments have worked for decades to try to do this, and unsuccessfully; they didn’t even come close,” Kelly explains.

He calls Watson’s ability to defeat humans at Jeopardy! a “turning point” that people are “going to remember for the rest of their lives.”

IBM was able to create the technology that led the way for Watson partly because they invest $6 billion per year in research and development and partly because they are able to hire, in Kelly’s words, “the smartest scientists and engineers and programmers in the world.” He concluded, “It’s light years ahead of  what other companies have been doing or even thinking about doing.”

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