Remember back in 1997 when IBM's chess-playing supercomputer Deep Blue famously beat then world champion Garry Kasparov in a highly publicized match? The event was symbolic in that it showed that computers could outsmart humans at a game once considered too intellectually challenging for a machine to master. Even so, chess is a game with well-defined rules and limits. Fast forward 14 years and the wait is over. After months of hype, last night it was Man versus Machine on Jeopardy!, as IBM’s “Watson” supercomputer took on the greatest champions in the game show’s history, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.
Watson -- named for IBM founder Thomas J. Watson -- is not just a souped up desktop PC. Instead, it’s powerful array of computers running on IBM’s POWER7 processors provide the lightning-quick response time and growing parade of trivial information. IBM has revealed that the Artificial Intelligence program is housed in a cluster of 90 IBM Power 750 servers, occupying 10 racks, which is the part of the machine you see on the show. There are 2,880 POWER7 processor cores in all — spread across 3.5 GHz POWER7 octo-core CPUs — and 16TB of RAM. Whoa, slow down, what does that mean? In this language we call English...this is one HUGE, super-fast computer.
So what happened in round 1 of the Man versus Machine Challenge? At the end of the first round, Rutter and Watson stand tied at $5,000 while Jennings trails with just $2,000. An early success for the machine, though not a perfect performance. In simulation games, Watson has mopped the floor with many winning Jeopardy contestants and a number of journalists. Round two is tonight at 6pm on CBS with the finale being on Wednesday.
So who will win? IBM is clearly very confident about its prospects. The Watson team has a wealth of information about Rutter and Jennings and how they play the game, and can fine-tune the supercomputer to best take advantage of their tendencies. Cheating? Maybe…we’ll just have to wait and find out who’s smarter.