John Henry Loses Again

By Edward Cone  |  Posted Wednesday, January 19, 2011 18:01 PM

Tim Moran

Watson, the Jeopardy-playing IBM supercomputer we first covered back in June, has now made its debut against real people and -- spoiler alert! -- won. The machine competed against Ken Jennings (74 Jeopardy wins in a row) and Brad Rutter ($3.25 million in winnings) and beat them by $1,000.

A couple of interesting details: the machine has to hit the same signaling buzzer that human Jeopardy! contestants must use before it answers; and key to Watson's winning ways is that it does not answer if it isn't sure it's right, which could give it an advantage over humans, who can lose money with a wrong guess.

(More on of how Watson works and the story behind its creation can be found at our previous blog post on this subject, linked above, and on IBM's own Watson site. In brief, the 80-teraflops supercomputer's "brain" scans 200 million-plus pages of data--in less than three seconds--to arrive at its answer; it is not connected to the Internet.)

As video of the contest shows, Watson isn't infallible; while it gave no wrong answers, it struggled with fill-in-the-blanks questions that required the parsing of English text. What I found most interesting about the scene was the sight of a black rectangle sporting spinning lights sitting in between two humans on the Jeopardy! set--and it really didn't look all that unusual. What does that say about it. . . and us?