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Supercomputer plays 'Jeopardy'

Back in 1997, IBM made history by fielding a supercomputer that beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov at his own game. For the past three years, the company has been working on a super-duper-computer to follow up on Deep Blue's triumph of the machine. Now the computer touted as the world's best question-answering machine, dubbed Watson, is almost ready for prime time. Or at least syndicated TV.

To put Watson to the test, IBM's programmers have been pitting the machine against human rivals for months. This time, the human-vs-machine battle isn't played over a chessboard, or even a poker table. The competition is in the form of a "Jeopardy" game, in which players have to buzz in quickly to provide the questions that go with answers displayed on a screen. For example, "In 2003, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became mayor of this city." The correct response (stated in the form of a question!) is "What is Tehran?"

The test isn't just a game: Being able to provide answers to questions using natural language analysis is the multibillion-dollar trick done by search engines, voicemail robots and future artificial-intelligence systems.

This week, an article in The New York Times Magazine traces how IBM selected "Jeopardy" as the standard for designing a better question-answering machine, how the company's engineers designed and fine-tuned Watson, and how the machine can often trounce us puny humans.

One of the big tricks is to cross-check a list of possible answers against additional searches and see which answer gets the highest ranking. Which is kind of what I do when I'm using the Web to answer a particularly tricky question.

The producers of "Jeopardy" have promised to put the machine to the test on national TV as early as this fall, in competition with some of the show's best veteran players. IBM expects to sell the Watson question-answering package to institutional customers in the next year or two. But you don't have to wait that long to get an idea how Watson works. This New York Times interactive lets you play against Watson in a trivia challenge, and you can even pick which questions you want to answer.

I, for one, welcome our new question-answering overlords. I might even have one of them attached to my brain one of these days. But what do you think? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

The YouTube video at the top of this item was produced by IBM. Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."