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Human vs. Machine on Jeopardy Tonight

posted by Nell Minow

Tonight’s the night! IBM’s Watson computer is going to take on two of the all-time greatest “Jeopardy” champions. “Jeopardy” has been on television since 1964. It was created by singer and talk show host Merv Griffin, who wrote that unforgettable Final Jeopardy jingle. It was Griffin’s wife who came up with the idea of giving contestants the answers and having them come up with the questions. Watson will compete against Ken Jennings, the all-time “Jeopardy” champ, whose winning streak lasted for six months and won him more than $2 million, and the runner up, Brad Rutter.

Washington Technology writes:


Watson is powered by 10 racks of IBM Power 750 servers, running Linux. It uses 15 terabytes of RAM and 2,880 processor cores.

To prepare for “Jeopardy!”, it has been loaded with a huge amount of information about books, movies, history, plays, music, current events, and the list goes on.

For some questions, one answer will have a high confidence level. This is when Watson is most likely to buzz in. For other questions, none of the answers will have a high confidence level and Watson will not buzz in.

“That’s the interesting thing,” McQueeney said. “The machine knows when it doesn’t know the answer.”


For each question, Watson evaluates information from about 200 million pages of content, or 1 million books.

Unlike Big Blue, Watson’s chess-playing brother, this challenge is about more than simple math. It’s more than simple information. “Jeopardy” questions involve puns and unexpected twists. Contestants must also evaluate their confidence levels with their bets on the Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy. I love computers and am excited to see what the people who created and programmed Watson have accomplished. But I’m rooting for Ken and Brad.

Check out Slate Magazine’s piece on the most frequent Jeopardy categories.


Jeopardy!Jeopardy! TV Schedule

  • trains o scale

    Just watched the show – Watson was doing pretty bad at the end ……….. but still impressive. I didn’t understand the point that clues will be sent to Watson in text file????? what did that mean???

  • California

    absolutely fascinating show

  • Atlanta

    This has been amazingly interesting to watch. Even though pitting it against humans is unfair due to the buzz in factor, in the end I don’t really care that it beats the humans so much as that artificial intelligence has come so far. I always thought computers *should* be good at chess so deep blue was not shocking, just cool. But I am pretty shocked that it is as good at Jeopardy as it is.

  • Grumpy Old Person

    Pretty impressed – except for the Final Jeopardy clue/answer. The category was “U.S. cities”, the question was about the two major airports in the clue city – and Watson came up with: “Toronto?????”
    What’s up with THAT? Yes, Toronto does have two airports, but neither were named after US military notables or WWII battles (O’Hare and Midway – in Chicago). But I don’t think it’s a U.S. city.
    Am I smarter than a computer?

  • Nell Minow

    Hi, Grumpy! Of course you’re smarter than any machine! I thought it was fascinating that Watson could not parse that question correctly. I wonder if it is because a crucial clue was in the subject line (“American cities”) but not the text of the answer.

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