Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011

Jeopardy! Pros vs. Watson

Although one might suspect that the 70-year-old Alex Trebek — who performs his hosting duties with almost mechanical perfection and looks eternally 50 — is some sort of Canadian robot, Jeopardy!'s first official machine went on air this week. An IBM supercomputer, which goes by the name of Watson (after the IBM founder), is taking on the show's most epic champions in the nerdiest battle of the millennium. The kick is that this isn't just about a computer having answers stored up like as many flash cards; it's about the machine being able to understand human language and logically retrieve answers, Homo sapien–style. But that's not the only reason the computer is super: its hardware is reportedly the size of 10 refrigerators, and it can perform 80 trillion operations per second. (It's hard to know quite what that means, but it sure sounds impressive.) Ken Jennings, the longest-running champ, and Brad Rutter, the champion who took home the most green, didn't fare so well in a practice round last month. But with a $1 million prize and the dignity of the human race now on the line, one might note that practice rounds don't count.