Image: Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter
Seth Wenig  /  AP
"Jeopardy" champions Ken Jennings, left, and Brad Rutter, right, look on as an IBM computer called "Watson" beats them to the buzzer to answer a question during a practice round of the "Jeopardy!" quiz show in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., on Thursday.
updated 1/13/2011 7:11:30 PM ET 2011-01-14T00:11:30

The clue: It's the size of 10 refrigerators, has access to the equivalent of 200 million pages of information and knows how to answer in the form of a question.

The correct response: "What is the computer IBM developed to become a 'Jeopardy' whiz?"

Watson, a "Jeopardy"-playing computer that IBM says marks a profound advance in artificial intelligence, edged out game-show champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on Thursday in its first public test, a short practice round ahead of a million-dollar tournament that will be televised next month.

Later, the human contestants made jokes about the "Terminator" movies and robots from the future. Indeed, four questions into the round, you had to wonder if the rise of the machines was already upon us — in a trivial sense at least.

Watson tore through a category about female archaeologists, repeatedly activating a mechanical button before either Ken Jennings or Brad Rutter could buzz in, then nailing the questions: "What is Jericho?" "What is Crete?" Its gentle male voice even scored a laugh when it said, "Let's finish 'Chicks Dig Me.'"

Jennings, who won a record 74 consecutive "Jeopardy" games in 2004-05, then salvaged the category, winning $1,000 by identifying the prehistoric human skeleton Dorothy Garrod found in Israel: "What is Neanderthal?"

He and Rutter, who won a record of nearly $3.3 million in prize money, had more success on questions about children's books and the initials "M.C.," though Watson knew about "Harold and the Purple Crayon" and that it was Maurice Chevalier who sang "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" in the film "Gigi." The computer pulled in $4,400 in the practice round, compared with $3,400 for Jennings and $1,200 for Rutter.

Not connected to Internet
Watson is powered by 10 racks of IBM servers running the Linux operating system. It's not connected to the Internet but has digested encyclopedias, dictionaries, books, news, movie scripts and more.

The system is the result of four years of work by IBM researchers around the globe, and although it was designed to compete on "Jeopardy," the technology has applications well beyond the game, said John Kelly III, IBM director of research. He said the technology could help doctors sift through massive amounts of information to draw conclusions for patient care, and could aid professionals in a wide array of other fields.

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"What Watson does and has demonstrated is the ability to advance the field of artificial intelligence by miles," he said.

Watson, named for IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, is reminiscent of IBM's famous Deep Blue computer, which defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. But while chess is well-defined and mathematical, "Jeopardy" presents a more open-ended challenge involving troves of information and complexities of human language that would confound a normal computer.

"Language is ambiguous; it's contextual; it's implicit," said IBM scientist David Ferrucci, a leader of the Watson team. Sorting out the context — especially in a game show filled with hints and jokes — is an enormous job for the computer, which also must analyze how certain it is of an answer and whether it should risk a guess, he said.

The massive computer was not behind its podium between Jennings and Rutter; instead, it was represented by an IBM Smart Planet icon on an LCD screen.

Next stop: 'Terminator'?
The practice round was played on a stage at an IBM research center in Yorktown Heights, north of Manhattan and across the country from the game show's home in California. A real contest among the three, to be televised Feb. 14-16, will be played at IBM on Friday.

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The winner of the televised match will be awarded $1 million. Second place gets $300,000, third place $200,000. IBM, which has headquarters in Armonk, said it would give its winnings to charity, while Jennings and Rutter said they would give away half theirs.

In a question-and-answer session with reporters after the practice round, Rutter and Jennings made joking reference to the jump in technology Watson represents.

"When Watson's progeny comes back to kill me from the future," Rutter said, "I have my escape route planned just in case."

Jennings said someone suggested his challenge was like the legend of John Henry, the 19th-century laborer who beat a steam drill in a contest but died in the effort. Jennings prefers a comparison to "Terminator," where the hero was a little more resilient.

"I had a friend tell me, 'Remember John Henry, the steel-drivin' man.' And I was like ... 'Remember John Connor!'" Jennings said. "We're gonna take this guy out!"

Associated Press writer Leon Drouin-Keith in New York City contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The 10 greatest fictional inventors of all time

  • Image: The 10 Greatest Fictional Inventors of All Time
    Image courtesy Gizmodo

    Eureka has been Giz's celebration of inventors of all stripe, from Tesla to Popeil. But some of the most memorable inventors of our time were actually invented themselves. Here are ten fictional innovators near and dear to our hearts.

  • Q

    Image: Q
    Image courtesy Gizmodo

    Who: Major Boothroyd, MI6 Quartermaster, Q was responsible for keeping James Bond one laser watch ahead of the bad guys.

    Greatest invention: Every would be spy has their favorite Q contraption, but the remote control BMW 750iL, which Bond could not only start but operate from his cell phone, led to the best backseat driver chase scene of all time. The flip-open cell phone that served as the car's remote was actually a concept by Ericsson, and they used elements of its design for a real handset they sold some years later.

    Image: Lotus Espirit Submarine Car from The Spy Who Loved Me
    Image courtesy Gizmodo

    Other noteworthy Q-nnovations include the Lotus Espirit Submarine Car from The Spy Who Loved Me, the Boombox Rocket Launcher from The Living Daylights and the Wet Bike from the Spy Who Loved Me, a Jet Ski-like craft that dazzled moviegoers in an era before there were Jet Skis.

  • Dr. Robotnik

    Image: Dr. Ivo Robotnik
    Image courtesy Gizmodo

    Who: Dr. Ivo Robotnik, Sonic the Hedgehog's egg-shaped nemesis.

    Greatest invention: Metal Sonic, a robotic version of Sonic that was charged with going back in time to do dirty, destiny-changing deeds for his creator, Dr. Robotnik. Metal Sonic was as fast, if not faster, than Sonic himself and had the benefit of myriad technological enhancements, such as a abdominal laser cannon and built-in force field device.

  • Doc Brown

    Image: Doctor Emmett Lathrop Brown
    Image courtesy Gizmodo

    Who: Doctor Emmett Lathrop Brown, an eccentric physicist based in Hill Valley, California.

    Greatest invention: That huge wall-sized guitar amp that knocks Marty McFly on his ass? NO! The flux capacitor, the core component of a machine that allowed Brown to travel through time. Brown came up with the idea of the capacitor on November 5, 1955, and worked tirelessly for the next 30 years developing it into a working time machine. The capacitor, which requires 1.21 Gigawatts of electrical power to function, was first implemented in a customized DeLorean and later, or maybe earlier?, in a 19th century train.

  • Brain

    Image: Brain, or Biological Recombinant Algorithmic Intelligence Nexus
    Image courtesy Gizmodo

    Who: Brain, or Biological Recombinant Algorithmic Intelligence Nexus, a genetically modified lab rat bent on taking over the world.

    Greatest invention: Brain's schemes for world domination were manifold, though one particularly ambitious effort was based around a device called the Infindibulator. In Brain's words:

    "Once we construct a superconductive magnetic Infindibulator, the world will be ours! ... By using the infindibulator to deplete hydrogen and promote gravitational collapse, we will produce a magnetic charge from the center of the Earth so strong that every person who has loose change in their pockets will be magnetically drawn to the ground and stuck there!"

  • Wayne Szalinski

    Image: Wayne Szalinski
    Image courtesy Gizmodo

    Who: Wayne Szalinski, a struggling suburban inventor and father of two.

    Greatest invention: The Electro-Magnetic Shrink Ray, a volatile high-energy device capable of shrinking matter. Though Szalinski was unable to convince a symposium of scientists that his invention was viable, the device was triggered by an errant baseball and accidentally shrunk Szalinski's children, as well as his neighbors', to a quarter of an inch size. After that episode was resolved, Szalinski added a large red safety button to the Ray, though it did little to prevent further shrinking hijinks.

  • Dr. Horrible

    Image: Dr. Horrible
    Image courtesy Gizmodo

    Who: Dr. Horrible, an fledgling supervillain and aspiring member of Bad Horse's Evil League of Evil.

    Greatest invention: The Freeze Ray, which is not a death ray nor an ice beam, can stop time, allowing Dr. Horrible to engineer the perfect romantic encounter. That of course being an important step in his ultimate project of ruling the world.

  • Tony Stark

    Image: Tony Stark
    Image courtesy Gizmodo

    Who: Tony Stark, a wealthy industrialist whose expertise in engineering is matched only by his lovable sass.

    Greatest invention: The Iron Man Armor, a weapon-laden exoskeleton first conceived during his time spent in captivity at the hands of a terrorist organization in Afghanistan. Though, many versions of the Iron Man Armor were created, the are defined by palm-embedded repulsors and jet-boots, effectively allowing Stark to fly. Later, more advanced iterations of Stark's armor were powered by a high-yield arc reactor.

  • Jigsaw

    Image: Jigsaw
    Image courtesy Gizmodo

    Who: John Kramer AKA the Jigsaw Killer, a civil engineer who specialized in the construction of elaborate death traps late in his life.

    Greatest invention: Not applicable.

  • Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts

    Image: Self-operating napkin
    Image courtesy of Gizmodo

    Who: Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, a mustachioed American inventor from the early 20th century who specialized in exceedingly complex machines that accomplished trivial tasks.

    Greatest invention: Butts is best known for his Self Operating Napkin, a contraption that a diner would wear around his head to facilitate automatic chin-wiping. Butts described its function thusly:

    Raising spoon to mouth (A) pulls string (B), thereby jerking ladle (C), which throws cracker (D) past parrot (E). Parrot jumps after cracker, and perch (F) tilts, upsetting seeds (G) into pail (H). Extra weight in pail pulls cord (I), which opens and lights automatic cigar lighter (J), setting off skyrocket (K), which causes sickle (L) to cut string (M) and allows pendulum with attached napkin (N) to swing back and forth, thereby wiping off your chin.

  • Tom Swift

    Image: Tom Swift
    Image courtesy Gizmodo

    Who: Thomas Swift Jr., a precocious teenage tinkerer with little formal education.

    Greatest invention: The Giant Telescope, a pioneering stargazing device made possible by a rare mineral discovered in a meteorite. Swift discovered the meteorite on an expedition in South America, and quickly observed the unique optical qualities of the mineral it contained. Swift used the green stone, which turned invisible when exposed to an electric current, in a 10 meter telescope, and the mineral made it powerful enough to read, he suggested, a telescope on the planet Mars.


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