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Originally published Monday, April 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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IBM booting up to take on "Jeopardy!"

IBM plans to announce today it is in the final stages of completing a computer program to compete against human contestants on "Jeopardy!"

The New York Times

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YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, N.Y. — This highly successful television quiz show is the latest challenge for artificial intelligence.

What is "Jeopardy!"?

That is correct.

IBM plans to announce today it is in the final stages of completing a computer program to compete against human contestants on "Jeopardy!"

IBM scientists previously devised a chess-playing program to run on a supercomputer called Deep Blue that beat the world champion Garry Kasparov in a 1997 match (Kasparov called it unfair and secured a draw in a later match against another version of the program).

But chess is a game of limits, with pieces that have clearly defined powers. "Jeopardy!" requires a program with the suppleness to weigh an almost infinite range of relationships and to make subtle comparisons and interpretations.

Tribute to founder

Indeed, the creators of the system — which the company refers to as Watson, in a reference to the IBM founder, Thomas J. Watson Sr. — said they were not yet confident that their system would be able to compete successfully on the television show, on which human champions typically provide correct responses 85 percent of the time.

"The big goal is to get computers to be able to converse in human terms," said the leader of the team, David A. Ferrucci, an IBM artificial-intelligence researcher, "and we're not there yet."

The team is not aiming at a true thinking machine, but a new class of software that can "understand" human questions and respond to them correctly.

Despite more than four decades of experimentation in artificial intelligence, scientists have made only modest progress until now toward building machines that can understand language and interact with humans.

"Grand challenges"

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The proposed contest is an effort by IBM to prove its researchers can make significant technical progress by picking "grand challenges" like its early chess foray.

The new bid is based on three years of work by a research team that has grown to 20 experts in fields like natural-language processing, machine learning and information retrieval.

Under the rules of the match the company has negotiated with the "Jeopardy!" producers, the computer will receive questions as electronic text. The human contestants will both see the text of each question and hear it spoken by the show's host, Alex Trebek.

The computer will respond with a synthesized voice to answer questions and to choose follow-up categories. It will not be connected to the Internet but will make its answers based on text that it has "read," or processed and indexed, before the show.

Eric Nyberg, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, is collaborating with IBM on research to devise computing systems capable of answering questions that are not limited to specific topics.

The real difficulty, Nyberg said, is not searching a database but getting the computer to deal with analogies, puns, double entendres and relationships like size and location, all at lightning speed.

Harry Friedman, the show's executive producer, said that they were thinking about who the human contestants should be and were considering inviting Ken Jennings, the legendary contestant who won 74 consecutive times and collected $2.52 million in 2004.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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