Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

I'll Take Computer Company PR Stunts for $1,000,000

Having bested humanity in chess 13 years ago, the supercomputing scientists at IBM say they’re finally ready to let their latest machine, named Watson, take on the two highest-earning champions of the game show “Jeopardy” in televised games that will air in February of next year.

The game has been in the planning stages for years. The New York Times covered the brewing matchup in a big takeout last year.

Why teach a computer to play “Jeopardy”? The company said it’s all about understanding natural language and detecting the subtle cues of human speech. “Jeopardy” questions can involve clever turns of phrases, riddles and other tricks of speech that can have multiple interpretations. While a computer can make fast work figuring out the best series of moves on the chess board, it’s a much taller order for a computer to answer these kinds of questions.

Take this example, which I borrowed from the J-Archive, a “Jeopardy” fan site: “This city didn’t exist at the time of the Trojan War, so Paris couldn’t have abducted Helen from there.”

A human will know that “Paris” here refers to the son of the king of Troy, not to the capital of France. That’s because we probably know a little about Greek mythology from junior high school, and even if we don’t we pick up a lot from the clue “Trojan War.”

The answer: “What is Sparta?” So, even if you don’t know the precise answer, chances are you can make a good guess by first mentally eliminating answers referring to the capital of France. The trick is in teaching the computer to go through the same process of elimination.

Earlier this year, IBM played a series of 50 “sparring games” against former “Jeopardy” champs. The two human players in the televised games are Ken Jennings (who set the record for winning 74 “Jeopardy” games in a row during the 2004-2005 season, winning $2.5 million) and Brad Rutter (who won $3.6 million–the most by a single “Jeopardy” player ever).

The grand prize for this challenge is $1 million, with $300,000 for second place and $200,000 for third. Rutter and Jennings will donate half their winnings to charity, while IBM will donate all of its winnings.

Playing “Jeopardy” is a good way to push the boundaries on a computer’s ability to answer questions posed in natural language, which IBM says will one day give computers the ability to help diagnose patients in health care settings, improve help desk calls and help tourists find their way around cities.

The machine playing is an IBM Power7 server that the company has optimized with numerous proprietary technologies to analyze spoken questions and then sift through the possibilities that might constitute the correct answer–and do it all within the stiff time limits the game requires.

If nothing else, this will get mainstream television audiences acquainted with the power of supercomputing from the comfort of their own living rooms.

While there was a lot of press coverage of the Garry Kasparov-Deep Blue chess matches in 1996 and 1997, for all the vaunted “man vs. machine” importance attached to it, I don’t recall it penetrating popular culture.

This just might. IBM, of course, hopes so.

Until the match, here is the company’s video on the pending matchup:

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik