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Real computer whiz

Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings, left, and Brad Rutter looked on as an IBM computer called Watson beat them to the buzzer to answer a question during a practice round of the Jeopardy! quiz show in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., on Thursday.
Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings, left, and Brad Rutter looked on as an IBM computer called Watson beat them to the buzzer to answer a question during a practice round of the Jeopardy! quiz show in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., on Thursday. AP

There's a new contestant coming to Jeopardy! — and it's the size of 10 refrigerators and swallows encyclopedias whole.

On Thursday, show host Alex Trebek and others gathered at IBM headquarters in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., and saw Watson, the computer system that IBM spent four years programming to compete on Jeopardy!, edge out the show's two best human contestants in history in a practice round.

That round will become real from Feb. 14-16 when America's favorite brain game will host a tournament featuring Watson alongside Jeopardy! legends Ken Jennings, who has won the most consecutive games, and Brad Rutter, the biggest money-winner in its history.

On Thursday, the computer pulled in $4,400 in the practice round, compared with $3,400 for Jennings and $1,200 for Rutter.

"The biggest achievement is that it already can compete against the best players," said David Ferrucci, lead scientist on the IBM project, which is named after the company's founder, Thomas J. Watson.

It wasn't always so. Earlier in its career, when asked, "What does a grasshopper eat?" Watson responded, "Kosher."

But in the test tourney, Watson hit the bull's-eye on a question about clothing a young girl might wear on an operatic ship. The answer, pinafore, is also found in the title of the Gilbert & Sullivan opera H.M.S. Pinafore. And the computer was successful with a before-and-after Jeopardy question about a candy bar and a Supreme Court justice, Baby Ruth Bader-Ginsberg.

Watson's Jeopardy! pulpit is slightly different than those of normal contestants.

"The more confident it is, the greener the lines on the globe," said Trebek, referring to the globe icon that appears on the screen of Watson's pulpit. "If it doesn't have any confidence, it's orange. If Watson is running orange, you know that Ken and Brad will probably get in ahead of him."

On Thursday, Trebek explained, Watson had once grown very green — only to pull an incorrect response.

"The answer we were going for was Jamie Foxx," he said. "For The Soloist, he learned to play the cello. But Watson came in with 'Who is Beethoven?' And Rutter said, 'I always get the two of them mixed up.'"

But in the practice round attended by journalists, Watson held its own against Jennings and Rutter, answering a surprising number of questions correctly, displaying a deep mastery of the show's wordplay, puns and other linguistic subtleties once thought to be understood only by humans.

As Ferrucci explained, "Jeopardy! is a very different challenge from chess," which IBM has programmed computers to play humans before.

"In chess, there's very precise rules and algorithms. Language is ambiguous, contextual, implicit. There's an infinite number of ways the same meaning can be expressed. Jeopardy! gave us a way to measure that."

Jennings remained a little anxious about what would happen if he beat Watson, even though a friend assured him that he'd win.

"I had a friend tell me, 'Remember John Henry the steel driving man? And I said, 'Screw that! Remember John Connor?" Catching the reference to the Terminator's rival, the audience laughed.

But wouldn't some small part of him and Rutter want Watson to win, if only for the sake of human progress?

"Human progress! We're the humans!" Jennings said, laughing.

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