One long-running American quiz show has never seen anything like it.
In Jeopardy, two human contestants are up against a computer called Watson.
The shows, spread over three days, are seen as a test of the ability of machines to understand what humans are asking them in natural language.
Jeopardy, broadcast on US television since 1964, gives contestants the answers and asks them to come up with the questions.
“Who is Agatha Christie?” said Watson, glowing green to show it was 97% sure that the crime writer had once appeared in an archaeological dig in Syria.
“Correct!” came the reply.
“Who is Maurice Chavalier?” Watson said as it guessed the question to an answer about the French actor and singer’s musical oeuvre.
“Correct!” Watson would have beamed with satisfaction, had it been able to do so.
The super-computer, designed by IBM, is powered by 10 racks of servers. It does not use the Internet but has digested a library’s worth of information from encyclopedias, dictionaries, books, news reports, movie scripts and other sources.
“Why do this?” asked David Ferrucci, principal investigator on the IBM Watson project. “Because it was hard and difficult and challenging and because if you succeed at this, what you’ve done is you’ve created a technology that can help people sift through and understand better all the knowledge that is out there in natural language content.”
One of Watson’s opponents in the show, Ken Jennings, who won a record-breaking 74 successive games, said:
“It’s got a huge 15 trillion bite memory bank but it has a hard time understanding some simple English sentences that a human child, you know, would understand so you get funny misunderstandings. In one of the practice games I remember Watson getting Jamie Foxx confused with Ludwig van Beethoven.”
Watson is said to be more advanced than Deep Blue, a machine that beat chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997.
The winner of the quiz will get a million dollars. Watson, tied in first place after day one, will have no say if he wins: IBM has said it would give away the prize money to charity.