January 30, 2011, Updated September 14, 2012

An Israeli IBM team put the brains into a supercomputer that will take on Jeopardy champs in a human vs. artificial intelligence televised match.


Can a machine beat some of the best contestants on Jeopardy?

A team of about a dozen IBM employees from four countries — the United States, Israel, China and Japan – have built an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered supercomputer, “Watson,” which could be the world’s smartest question-and-answer machine.

On February 14, 15 and 16, Watson will take on Jeopardy champs on national TV in North America. The long running, prime-time program poses answers to which contestants must provide the correct trivia question.

Watson, though he’s just a machine, will attempt to win a $1 million prize by playing against two of the brainy game show’s most celebrated contestants, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, in two matches over three days. IBM has pledged that if Watson wins, all the prize money will go to charity.

Named after Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM, and the assistant to Sherlock Holmes, the supercomputer will have a fan club watching. Dafna Sheinwald from the IBM Haifa Lab in Israel will be at the taping, excited to see how man will compete against machine.

It was a huge mission to develop a computer that could rival a human’s ability to answer spoken questions posed as answers. Sheinwald and her research partner, David Carmel, say the contribution from the Israeli team was search algorithms that help sort out meaningful information from reams of heterogeneous data. That’s their specialty at the IBM R&D facilities.

Organizing and linking data

An organization as big as IBM, the largest information technology company in the world, has a whole lot of data it needs to keep straight, from what’s on the Internet to its own Intranet, emails, white papers and blogs.

This is the job of computer specialists like Carmel and Sheinwald. And the experience of programming Watson has applications in their day-to-day work. Although it was an exciting and fun challenge, the team members are also, after all, employees of a commercial company.

“We were asked to look for future directions,” Sheinwald says. “One interesting application is related to AI in machine natural-language processing. People are trying to make a smart machine and gradually build its knowledge.”

IBM Israel Watson team

Researchers David Carmel and Dafna Sheinwald from IBM Israel helped build Watson, the supercomputer that will play Jeopardy in February.

But the computer needs to put all the data out there in the world into proportion. It needs to build relationships between words. Sheinwald poses one example: There is a woman. She is a reporter. She works for the media. She is a daughter. All the relationships between this data must be strung together with using connecting words and phrases such as “is,” “or,” “part of,” “a [child] of,” or “contains,” says Sheinwald.

“We look at two objects and their relationships, so when you ask something, [Watson] will know the answer.”

Revving the mind of the machine

Carmel says the Israeli team is highly focused on search engine technology and developing it for enterprise networks. “Question-and-answer is not a new area, but the efforts done in this project have been aggressive,” he says. “We hope it shows good performance.”

To flex the mind-muscles of Watson, the team applied it in more than 50 trial run games against Jeopardy Tournament of Champions contestants this fall. The computer has also taken the same initial screening test that humans need to pass before they are invited to be contestants on the show.

Since the game of Jeopardy is not so straightforward, it became the ultimate challenge for the Watson developers. The answers demanding correct questions from the contestants can be riddled with irony, and subtle meanings and inferences are often not picked up even by smart people, let alone smart computers. Where computers typically fail miserably at these kinds of questions, humans have always had the edge. But maybe not anymore.

Not so trivial applications

The Israeli team is thinking realistically however, and from what they have seen in trial runs, they believe that Watson will not win the prize. However, there is more at stake than winning: they hope their work will be applied to new and novel advances that are much more than games and trivia.

The technology developed for Watson can be used in healthcare to manage patient data, and help doctors make more accurate diagnoses. It could be applied in call-center technology so that talking to a computer is more like talking to a human.
It could also be used by cell phone companies to deliver customer services and coupons as people pass by a certain location.

This could all be thanks to Watson, and the contribution from IBM Israel, which currently employs about 1,000 people — a quarter of whom have advanced degrees in computer sciences, math and related fields.

Does having well-educated developers mean that Watson has a chance of winning? Watch the game to find out.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director