Volume 20, Number 1 -- January 10, 2011

IBM's Watson Supercomputer to Play Jeopardy! and Challenge Humanity

Published: January 10, 2011

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

"This venerable minicomputer platform won the midrange wars, besting Hewlett-Packard's HP 3000, Digital Equipment's VAX and MicroVAX, and IBM's own 9700 and 4300s."

Ah, but if asked that question on the Jeopardy! game show, would IBM's soon-to-be-announced Watson question-answer system actually get the right answer? Considering that Watson owes its existence in part to the fine engineering from the IBM Rochester Labs, one could only hope it would be able to reply, "What is the AS/400?"

In the late 1990s, IBM freaked out Gary Kasparov, a grand master chess player, by defeating him in a chess duel with the "Deep Blue" RS/6000 PowerParallel machine, perhaps IBM's greatest PR stunt until the Watson machine, which just qualified to play Jeopardy! and is slated to take on two of the best players of the game show that humanity has fielded yet. That would be Ken Jennings, who won 74 Jeopardy! games, and Brad Rutter, who has raked in the most dough from the show, with $3.25 million in winnings.

Back in April 2009, IBM divulged the Watson QA project and its goal to have the machine qualify like any other contestant to take on humanity. (I wrote about the machine in my other life over at The Register here.) There is not much of an AS/400 angle to the Watson story, but there is a Power angle and anything that helps Power Systems helps preserve the IBM i platform. When IBM released a statement saying that Watson had qualified by taking the same entry test to Jeopardy! that people take and would be playing Jennings and Rutter on February 14 through 16, the company said the Watson machine was based on Power7 iron. As far as I know, the initial beta of the Watson machine from two years ago was based on a BlueGene/P super, which is not a Power7 box. It will be interesting to see how this machine is architected and how the QA system works.

In the meantime, you can watch a video of Watson here and see for yourself that the machine is, like people, far from perfect. Maybe we simulated humans a bit too well, eh? Watson has taken on over 50 game champions to tune its software. It won't be too long before there is a QA system called Shakespeare and I will be out of a job, too. . . .

The grand prize for winning the three-day Jeopardy! contest is $1 million, and second place receives $300,000 and third place gets $200,000. IBM is donating all of Watson's winnings to charity, and as you might expect, Jennings and Rutter are only giving away half.


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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik, Victor Rozek,
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