IBM this week announced plans to pit one of its supercomputers against human contestants on the game show Jeopardy! And the show's producers are game, with host Alex Trebek even filming a faux–Final Jeopardy! segment for a promotional video. IBM spokesperson Michael Loughran says the company hopes to stage a series of sparring matches this year in advance of a final showdown in 2010.

The computer will be equipped with a question-answering system dubbed "Watson," after early IBM president Thomas J. Watson. The company says it has been refining Watson for almost two years.

"The challenge is to build a system that, unlike systems before it, can rival the human mind's ability to determine precise answers to natural language questions and to compute accurate confidences in the answers," David Ferrucci, Watson project team leader, said in a statement. A successful demonstration of a powerful semantics-crunching program in such a public (and publicized) setting would provide a profile boost for the artificial intelligence community.

IBM says that Watson will have access to a knowledge database, just as contestants have a life's worth of learning and experience to draw on, but will not be connected to the Internet. "The entire Watson computer system will be self-contained and on stage, as are the human contestants," Loughran says. "No external connections, no lifelines—what you see is what you get." He adds that Watson will likely have an electronic connection to the Jeopardy! system for buzzing in, as there is no planned robotic or mechanical component.

Watson would not be the first high-profile IBM project to challenge the intelligentsia, of course: the company's Deep Blue computer took on chess grand master Garry Kasparov in the 1990s, losing in 1996 before besting Kasparov the following year.

But chess, for all its complexity, is not subject to the vagaries of language, not to mention the punny wordplay often found in Jeopardy! clues. A New York Times reporter witnessed a demo of Watson in action, noting that the program was more adept in some settings than others. Given the statement "Bordered by Syria and Israel, this small country is only 135 miles long and 35 miles wide," Watson quickly replied correctly: "What is Lebanon?" (For the uninitiated, Jeopardy! contestants are given a clue in the form of an answer and asked to provide the accompanying question.) "Moments later, however," the Times reports, "the program stumbled when it decided it had high confidence that a 'sheet' was a fruit."

Let's just hope Watson isn't lifelike enough to feel embarrassment when it botches the occasional answer.

Photo of Watson project director David Ferrucci courtesy of IBM