IBM's Watson Ties for Jeopardy Lead, Victory Not Certain

Jeopardy champion Brad Rutter was tied with IBM super computer, Watson at $5000 apiece after the first round of Jeopardy's three-night IBM challenge on Monday. The other carbon-based life form competing against Watson, Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings, was in third place with $2000. After the first night of play, the competitors finished only the first Jeopardy round and did not get into the Double Jeopardy or Final Jeopardy rounds.

So how did the machine stack up against the two 'ugly giant bags of mostly water' it was competing against? Let's take a look.

Watson Revealed

Jeopardy host Alex Trebek gave a sneak peek at Watson's inner workings on Monday night's show. Ten server racks each containing 10 IBM Power 750 servers power Watson's massive trivia brain, Trebek said. The machine has 15 trillion bytes of memory (that's 13.53 Terabytes) and each Power 750 has a 3.5 GHz POWER7 eight-core processor. Watson's set-up also includes two massive refrigeration units to keep the machine cool during intense Jeopardy play. On stage, a display unit showing a version of IBM's Smarter Planet icon represented Watson.

When Watson receives a Jeopardy answer (as an electronic text file) it parses the language to come up with at least three possible responses. If any of the responses pass the computer's so-called 'Buzz Threshold,' represented by a percentage, it triggers its buzzer to answer the question (responding in the form of a question, of course). The buzz threshold was not a constant number and would change based on the answer's level of difficulty.

Watson Roars

At first, it appeared as though Watson was going to absolutely destroy Jennings and Rutter. The machine easily nabbed 12 of the first 16 Jeopardy questions without a single error beating Jennings and Rutter to the buzzer each time. Jennings was only able to answer once while Rutter nabbed 3.

Watson Whimpers...a little

Then, things got interesting. Watson, during the first 16, stuck mostly to easy $200-level Jeopardy answers, although it did take a few shots at harder ones. But as those answers disappeared Watson was forced to try and form questions for harder answers that involved more wordplay, and that's where the machine tripped up.

Watson answered incorrectly four times on Monday night. For example, Watson answered, "What is leg?" for a reference to the one-legged 1904 Olympian George Eyser. The correct response was, "What is, he's missing a leg?" Neither of the human contestants correctly answered that question either.

At one point, Watson also gave the same incorrect answer as Ken Jennings. Watson receives input electronically as a set of text files and cannot respond to voice input so the machine was unaware of Jennings' answer. In the end, Watson was still able to answer more often than either Jennings or Rutter, but the machine's Jeopardy debut wasn't flawless.

It was an interesting first Jeopardy round, and although IBM's super computer is tied for the lead, Watson's victory is far from certain.

The Jeopardy-IBM challenge has two more nights to go on February 15 and 16.

Connect with Ian Paul ( @ianpaul ) and Today@PCWorld on Twitter for the latest tech news and analysis.

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