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Computer holds its own in 1st ‘Jeopardy!’ contest

David Gondek of IBM Research was pleased with Watson’s showing in the first of three contests. David Gondek of IBM Research was pleased with Watson’s showing in the first of three contests. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / February 15, 2011

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Last night, an overflow crowd in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology lecture hall watched as IBM Corp.’s Watson computer played to a draw against human opponents in the quiz show “Jeopardy!’’

The crowd at MIT was rooting for the computer, because the university was one of two in Massachusetts — the other was University of Massachusetts Amherst — that worked on Watson’s technology.

The Watson system, the result of four years of work by IBM researchers around the world, is something of an heir to the company’s Deep Blue computer, which defeated world champion Garry Kasparov in a chess match in the late 1990s.

IBM scientists launched the Watson project to test whether a computing system could rival a human’s ability to answer questions posed in natural language with speed and accuracy. The “Jeopardy!’’ format was chosen because the game’s clues require analyzing meaning, humor, riddles, and other subtleties that humans can process, but are difficult for computers.

Six other universities, including Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the University of Texas, contributed to the Watson project.

Last night’s “Jeopardy!’’ was the first of three contests between two “Jeopardy!’’ champions and the IBM computer system. Although the shows were prerecorded, the results have been secret. The champion will be revealed at the conclusion of tomorrow night’s show.

The UMass contribution to Watson was information retrieval technology that helps the comput er in the very first steps it takes when it is challenged with a question, enabling it to look for and retrieve text that is most likely to contain accurate answers.

“Our system zips through all the possible resources and puts virtual Post-it notes where the answers might be,’’ professor James Allan of UMass Amherst said yesterday. “Then we turn those results over to other systems to go deeper.’’

A team of researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory contributed a system that comes nanoseconds later in the process, giving Watson the ability to break down individual questions into simple sub-questions, so that possible responses can be quickly collected and then fused back together to come up with an answer.

“The UMass research was essential to giving us the possibility of a good answer,’’ said David Gondek, a research scientist from IBM Research. “The MIT group helped us sort through those candidate answers and decide which is the best one.’’

After last night’s round, which ended in a tie between Watson and human contestant Brad Rutter, Gondek said, “Watson made a good showing, but I’d like to be leading.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.