IBM's Jeopardy strategy: Divide and conquer

IBM shared a few secrets behind its Jeopardy-challenging Watson computer

By Joab Jackson, IDG News Service |  Hardware, IBM

Kelly Miyahara from Jeopardy Clue Crew at the CES09 set
JoeDuck / flickr

When it comes tackling a challenge as tough as answering a human question, the best computational approach may be to break the job down into multiple parts and run them all in parallel, IBM is betting.

IBM will be taking this strategy next month when its custom-built computer, nicknamed Watson, will compete in an episode of the Jeopardy game show against two previous champions.

While IBM has been thus far been silent about Watson's exact configuration, Watson lead manager David Ferrucci recently shared a few insights with the IDG News Service about how the system was built to take on this formidable task.

For IBM, the Jeopardy challenge represents the next stage in mimicking human intelligence in computer form. In 1997, IBM's Deep Blue computer won a game of chess against grandmaster Garry Kasparov. Jeopardy will be even a tougher job, Ferrucci said.

"In chess, there is nothing tacit, nothing contextual," Ferrucci said. In contrast, the questions in a Jeopardy match assume an understanding of how people communicate, including the many references and allusions they use. "It's a huge challenge," he said.

"Natural language processing is so difficult because of the many different ways the same information can be expressed," Ferrucci said.

Watson's approach is to divide and conquer. "You have to look at the data from so many different perspectives and combine the [results], because you can never rely on there being only one way to express that content."

In the game show, contestants compete to correctly answer a series of questions. In a grammatical twist, the questions are phrased as answers and the contestants must provide their answers in the form of questions.

To make the contest even more difficult, often the questions are phrased in elliptic ways, forcing the contestants to think about what is really being asked. One typical question: "This measurement of cloth is equal to 40 yards." (Answer: What is a bolt?).

Only when host Alex Trebek finishes asking the question are the contestants allowed to indicate that they know the answer, by hitting a buzzer. The first contestant hitting the buzzer gets the first chance to answer the question.

Typically, it takes about three seconds for the announcer to finish asking the question, Ferrucci said. It is in this compact time frame that Watson must determine a plausible answer.

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