Next human vs. machine battleground: game show Jeopardy!

Are we about to reach the holy grail of artificial intelligence -- the ability of computers to compete on game shows?

Think fast -- what is the appropriate question to this answer, as seen on the game show Jeopardy!:

Proverbially, a praiseworthy accomplishment is this "in your cap"

Some people are naturally good at thinking quickly on their feet and coming up with the right response -- that's why they become game show contestants.  (The right response: "What is a feather?")

Could a computer come up with the right response just as quickly? Is a computer just as capable of thinking quickly on its proverbial feet, even parsing through hidden meaning, idioms, or human folklore?

We'll see, but it looks like computers are ready to advance to becoming game show contestants. (Something for the Singularity folks to ponder.) IBM just announced that its “Watson” supercomputer will compete on Jeopardy! in February against the show’s two top contestants. The competition will air on February 14, 15 and 16, 2011, with two matches being played over three consecutive days. (Disclosures: IBM is sponsor for SmartPlanet; Jeopardy! appears on CBS, host of SmartPlanet.)

Watson, named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, was developed by a team of IBM scientists who sought to build a supercomputer that rivals a human’s ability to answer questions posed in natural language with speed, accuracy and confidence. The Jeopardy! format provides the ultimate challenge, IBM says, because the game’s clues involve analyzing subtle meaning, irony, riddles, and other complexities in which humans excel and computers traditionally do not.

A game such as Jeopardy, which requires a wide breadth of trivia knowledge, requires capabilities that exceed many of today's artificial intelligence systems. As a report in The New York Times put it: "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."

More often than not, human statements and questions are full of “intended meaning,” Dr. David Ferrucci, the scientist leading the IBM Research team that created Watson, is quoted as saying in the Times article. "When people decode what someone else is saying, we can easily unpack the many nuanced allusions and connotations in every sentence." Consider this Jeopardy! clue: “The name of this hat is elementary, my dear contestant.” People can instinctively detect the wordplay here — “elementary, my dear Watson” -- and conclude that the answer is Sherlock Holmes' deerstalker hat. Computers and search engines often miss out on such wordplay, and would have difficulty drawing a connection to deerstalker hats.

Will such leaps of logic be "elementary" for this Watson?

It took several years to build Watson to be able to handle most of the random topics it would need to tackle. For example, as shown in the video on this page, in a 2007 run, Watson is provided a topic from the I Love Lucy TV series: “It was Ricky’s signature tune, and later the name of his club."

Watson's response: “What is song?”

Should have been: "What is Babalu?"

Watson obviously needed to catch up on all the classic TV shows.

Competing against Watson will be two of the most successful Jeopardy! contestants, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, who collectively won almost $6 million on Jeopardy! episodes.

Beyond Jeopardy!, the technology behind Watson can be adapted to solve problems and drive progress in various fields. The computer has the ability to sift through vast amounts of data and return precise answers, ranking its confidence in its answers. The technology could be applied in areas such as healthcare, to help accurately diagnose patients, to improve online self-service help desks, to provide tourists and citizens with specific information regarding cities, and prompt customer phone support.

As IBM's Dr. John Kelly put it:  “We are trying to produce a deep question and answer machine that will change the way people interact with computers and machines.  We're going to revolutionize many fields."

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com