An interesting thing is happening in the field of artificial intelligence: a computer that can beat humans in a natural-language general knowledge quiz:
‘Toured the Burj in this U.A.E. city. They say it’s the tallest tower in the world; looked over the ledge and lost my lunch.”
This is the quintessential sort of clue you hear on the TV game show “Jeopardy!” It’s witty (the clue’s category is “Postcards From the Edge” ), demands a large store of trivia and requires contestants to make confident, split-second decisions. This particular clue appeared in a mock version of the game in December, held in Hawthorne, N.Y. at one of I.B.M.’s research labs. Two contestants — Dorothy Gilmartin, a health teacher with her hair tied back in a ponytail, and Alison Kolani, a copy editor — furrowed their brows in concentration. Who would be the first to answer?
Neither, as it turned out. Both were beaten to the buzzer by the third combatant: Watson, a supercomputer.
For the last three years, I.B.M. scientists have been developing what they expect will be the world’s most advanced “question answering” machine, able to understand a question posed in everyday human elocution — “natural language,” as computer scientists call it — and respond with a precise, factual answer. In other words, it must do more than what search engines like Google and Bing do, which is merely point to a document where you might find the answer. It has to pluck out the correct answer itself. Technologists have long regarded this sort of artificial intelligence as a holy grail, because it would allow machines to converse more naturally with people, letting us ask questions instead of typing keywords. Software firms and university scientists have produced question-answering systems for years, but these have mostly been limited to simply phrased questions. Nobody ever tackled “Jeopardy!” because experts assumed that even for the latest artificial intelligence, the game was simply too hard: the clues are too puzzling and allusive, and the breadth of trivia is too wide.
With Watson, I.B.M. claims it has cracked the problem — and aims to prove as much on national TV. The producers of “Jeopardy!” have agreed to pit Watson against some of the game’s best former players as early as this fall. To test Watson’s capabilities against actual humans, I.B.M.’s scientists began holding live matches last winter. They mocked up a conference room to resemble the actual “Jeopardy!” set, including buzzers and stations for the human contestants, brought in former contestants from the show and even hired a host for the occasion: Todd Alan Crain, who plays a newscaster on the satirical Onion News Network.
Technically speaking, Watson wasn’t in the room. It was one floor up and consisted of a roomful of servers working at speeds thousands of times faster than most ordinary desktops. Over its three-year life, Watson stored the content of tens of millions of documents, which it now accessed to answer questions about almost anything. (Watson is not connected to the Internet; like all “Jeopardy!” competitors, it knows only what is already in its “brain.”) During the sparring matches, Watson received the questions as electronic texts at the same moment they were made visible to the human players; to answer a question, Watson spoke in a machine-synthesized voice through a small black speaker on the game-show set. When it answered the Burj clue — “What is Dubai?” (“Jeopardy!” answers must be phrased as questions) — it sounded like a perkier cousin of the computer in the movie “WarGames” that nearly destroyed the world by trying to start a nuclear war.
This time, though, the computer was doing the right thing. Watson won $1,000 (in pretend money, anyway), pulled ahead and eventually defeated Gilmartin and Kolani soundly, winning $18,400 to their $12,000 each.
“Watson,” Crain shouted, “is our new champion!”