“NO, Watson, Ken already said that!”

A generation ago, one of the biggest insurmountable challenges in computing was writing a chess program that could beat the world’s best human player.  That eventually happened in 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue beat the greatest Grandmaster of all-time Garry Kasparov (of course, computers had been beating inferior players for much longer – including ChessMaster 3000 regularly trouncing me in my college dorm room back in the early 1990′s!)

Today, the challenge has moved from the numerous mathematical but ultimately finite possibilities of chess to the much more difficult world of natural language processing.  Once again, it’s IBM taking up the challenge.  They’ve spent five years and tens of millions of dollars developing Watson, a super-computer specially designed to play Jeopardy with all of its uniquely worded, pun-filled trivia questions.

How does Watson actually work?  It’s programmed with the rules and strategies of the game (if it’s further behind, it may make a bigger wager on a Daily Double question.)   Beyond the framework of how to play Jeopardy, the IBM scientists have inputted a data set equivalent to the Library of Congress holdings into the massive super computer that is “behind the curtain” operating Watson (they only have a stand-in avatar on the Jeopardy stage.)  Beyond that data set, the computer isn’t connected to the Net or any other external resources.

Watson is also “deaf and blind” as programming in speech and video recognition are yet another leap.  (This was clear in the first game when Jennings gave a wrong answer then Watson immediately repeated it.)  So instead of Watson “hearing” or “reading” the questions, they get put into its algorithm as a text file just as Alex Trebek reads them to the human contestants.  Watson does word parsing and other analysis to come up with a near-instantaneous answer as well as calculations to determine how confident it is.  Watson’s even been programmed to “push” a buzzer button when it wants to answer a question!

MetaFilter’s been following this since the project was first publicly announced in 2009 including a new thread now that the actual Jeopardy showdown, pitting Watson against two of Jeopardy’s all-time champions, has arrived.

Ken Jennings, who set a record by winning 74 straight games on Jeopardy, answers viewer questions about the experience after the first day.

The New York Times has created an interactive app which allows you simulate the experience of playing against Watson (though in a turn-based rather than buzzer-based format.)

It’s a three-day, total points tournament so you’ll have to tune in today and tomorrow to see who ultimately wins (and yes, the shows do feel like an infomercial for IBM!)

Finally, here’s an awesome documentary about the project (you’ll need a VPN or other digital trickery to view if you’re in Canada.)  Here’s the YouTube preview:

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