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Computer ties human as they square off on 'Jeopardy!'

John D. Sutter
IBM's Watson computer is competing against former champs Ken Jennings, left, and Brad Rutter on "Jeopardy!" this week.
IBM's Watson computer is competing against former champs Ken Jennings, left, and Brad Rutter on "Jeopardy!" this week.
  • IBM computer Watson finishes first round tied with 1 contestant, ahead of 2nd
  • Watson has the processing power of 2,800 "powerful computers"
  • The human-computer battle continues on "Jeopardy!" through Wednesday

(CNN) -- The computers haven't proven to be our trivia overlords just yet.

Give them at least until Wednesday.

An IBM supercomputer named Watson finished one round of the TV show "Jeopardy!" on Monday night tied with one of his human competitors and $3,000 ahead of the other.

The man vs. computer face-off won't be complete, however, until the final rounds of the extended trivia game show are aired on Tuesday and Wednesday.

IBM trumpets Watson, which has been in development for years and has the processing power of 2,800 "powerful computers," as a major advancement in machines' efforts to understand human language. The computer receives clues through digital texts and then buzzes in against the two other "Jeopardy!" contestants like any other player would. It juggles dozens of lines of reasoning at once and tries to arrive at a smart answer.

Man vs. machine on 'Jeopardy!'

After getting off to a scary-good start, Watson did have a few stumbles.

In one instance, it repeated an answer that another contestant, Ken Jennings, who won 74 "Jeopardy!" episodes in a row, had already tried.

"What is 1920s?" Watson said, sounding like a digitized Matthew Broderick.

"No," game-show host Alex Trebek replied. "Ken said that."

On many other clues, however, Watson was spot-on. After losing the first clue to Brad Rutter, another "Jeopardy!" champion, Watson jumped in on the second question.

Clue: "Iron fitting on the hoof of a horse or a card-dealing box in a casino."

Watson: "What is shoe?"


At the start of the show, Trebek went to some lengths to explain the origins of Watson -- IBM approached the show about the idea three years ago -- and how the computer actually works. That's partly because what you see on the "Jeopardy!" stage is somewhat misleading.

It looks as if two humans are bookending a simple computer monitor, which appears to be just about as smart as they are. In reality, as Trebek explained, the bulk of Watson's computer power was stored in another building at an IBM lab in New York, where the show is being held for this special three-day competition.

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After introducing Watson, to studio applause, this is how Trebek explained it:

"Just as I expected," he said. "That was a very warm reception and I'm sure Watson would have appreciated the applause. Except for one thing: Watson can neither hear nor see. It will be receiving all of its information electronically.

"And as a matter of fact what you're looking at right now is not the real Watson. This is an avatar. This is a representation of Watson. Watson, or course, is a sophisticated computer system too big and too heavy to fit behind that lectern on our stage."

As for the stage version of Watson, his brain-face was represented by a digital Earth that swirled with ribbons of various colors while he thought about questions. As Trebek read the clues, a bar graph appeared at the bottom of the screen, showing the top three answers Watson was considering at that moment and how confident he was in those choices.

Sometimes the computer managed to be confident but still incorrect.

Here's the clue to the first question Watson got wrong:

"From the Latin for end, this is where trains can also originate."

Watson: "What is finis." Confidence level: 97%.

Trebek: "No. Ken?"

"What is terminus," Jennings answered correctly.

Before ending the evening tied with Rutter at $5,000 each, Watson had jumped out to an early lead at the first commercial break. At that point, Watson had $5,200 and his closest noncomputer counterpart had only $1,000.

Several Twitter users were awed by the computer's smarts.

"Watson kinda feakin' me out. Big time," Michael Gartenberg, a tech analyst, wrote on his Twitter feed.

Another person wrote: "Watson is almost scary. This is willld! These humans are no match for Watson's algorithms."

Trebek summed up the computer's mixed performance this way:

"So, what have we learned so far: Watson's very bright, very fast, but he had some weird little moments once in a while."

Then he teased the upcoming shows:

"And how many of those will we encounter tomorrow when we play double and final 'Jeopardy!'?"


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