What is “Awesome?” IBM’s Watson vs. Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter


IBM has a history of pitting man versus machine in PR stunts that capture headlines — and yeah, it’s happening again, tonight. In 1989, IBM took on chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov using its Deep Thought machine…and lost. In 1996, IBM returned with Deep Blue…and lost. But in 1997, a reengineered version of Deep Blue narrowly defeated Kasparov (IBM refused Kasparov’s requests for a rematch; the topic is thoroughly covered in the documentary Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine). So what’s my point? Starting tonight, IBM’s Watson computer will play Jeopardy against Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. The three Watson shows air tonight (January, 14 February 2011) through Wednesday, and you can bet nerds worldwide will be glued to their TV sets. Check your local listings for channel and time info.

Here’s some video of a short preview match from earlier this year (watch closely for how the buzzer timing seems to be crucial — Jennings apparently tries to buzz in on all of these questions but barely misses most of the buzz opportunities):

For technical details about Watson, check out this article — some sample specs:

Watson is comprised of 90 Power 750 servers, 16 TB of memory and 4 TB of disk storage, all housed in a relatively compact ten racks. The 750 is IBM’s elite Power7-based server targeted for high-end enterprise analytics. (The Power 755 is geared toward high performance technical computing and differs only marginally in CPU speed, memory capacity, and storage options.) Although the enterprise version can be ordered with 1 to 4 sockets of 6-core or 8-core Power7 chips, Watson is maxed out with the 4-socket, 8-core configuration using the top bin 3.55 GHz processors.

So it’s two men against 2,880 cores of computing power and a massive database of human knowledge. Who will win? Honestly, my money is on Ken Jennings by a nose (and that’s not just because Ken writes for us — I just think he’s the man). Having Rutter in the mix will serve to split the humans’ scores, so the games may come down to aggressive betting on Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy. My advice for the humans: if you get a Daily Double, bet the farm, because there’s no buzzer disadvantage involved. Given that there are three games, we’ll have three long days of tension — and nerds of the world may be sorely disappointed if Watson wins the first round.

After the jump: a preview of NOVA’s The Smartest Machine on Earth, which airs February 9th at 10/9c on most PBS stations. The episode digs into the history of Watson and similar computer systems. I have seen an early cut of this NOVA episode, and it is required viewing if you’re even remotely interested in Watson — all the key players are interviewed, and the technology is discussed in depth. You also get to see projects like Cyc, which uses a very different approach to language learning.

Previous coverage: IBM Invents Jeopardy-Playing Computer, More on IBM’s Jeopardyputer, and 4 Classic Battles Between Man (or Horse) and Machine.