The ‘Smartest Machine on Earth’ vs. Jeopardy Champs on Nova


By Mary Lou Platt

“Jeopardy” champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter will play against “Watson,” the “smartest machine on earth.”

Can a computer win on Jeopardy against the game show’s all-time champs? That is the question that will be explored on the Nova special The Smartest Machine on Earth, airing Wednesday, February 9 on PBS. And the definitive answer will be revealed on Jeopardy over a special three day tournament, February 14, 15, and 16. That’s when IBM’s “Watson” computer competes against Jeopardy champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

TV history will be made no matter who wins, but should we root for the human or the robot? Actually there are good reasons to root for both, as the Nova special will detail with a behind the scenes look at events leading up to the million dollar competition.

It delves into the groundbreaking creation of the Watson computer, and gives other examples of AI, artificial intelligence. Viewers will find the efforts to build a machine that thinks like a person simply fascinating.

The founder of IBM is T.J. Watson, and so the remarkable computer was named for him, explained Dr. David Ferrucci, who recently spoke to a gathering of TV writers about the Nova special. Ferrucci, a research staff member and leader of Semantic Analysis at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center, will be watching Jeopardy too. Back in 2007, Ferrucci began exploring the feasibility of designing a computer that could rival human champions on Jeopardy. Named “Deep QA,” the project focused on advancing language question answering, using massively parallel evidence-base computing. It was a breakthrough in artificial intelligence.

After the Jeopardy challenge, Ferrucci and his team that designed Watson plan to apply the Deep QA technologies to areas like medicine, government, and law to drive advances in computer supported intelligence and decision making fields.

Although Ferrucci said, of course, he’ll be rooting for Watson, he also thinks “this challenge helps us appreciate how incredible the human brain is. Whether it loses or not in this big game is really not the point. The point is we were able to take a step forward. That’s what we’re excited about.”

Watson will be pitted against Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings, who had a 74-game win streak, and the all-time biggest money winner and undefeated champ Brad Rutter. They are two formidable competitors for the unique challenge.

Harry Friedman, executive producer of Jeopardy, now in its 27th season, is a leader in the television industry. He reported he’s not rooting for man or machine.

“I’m just looking for a great competition, which I think we’re going to get,” Friedman said. “I feel as though the show is really the big winner because we’re bringing our viewers something that we never dreamed of doing. We think it’s going to be a once in a lifetime experience, over the three episodes.”

Friedman has produced more than 5,500 episodes of Jeopardy, and is also the executive producer of Wheel of Fortune.

Paula Apsell, the senior executive producer of Nova, now in its 38th season, said she can’t play favorites but revealed, “I’m rooting for Nova. It is a program that will really explain AI people. It will clarify some of the misconceptions, and make us understand that HAL is not coming to town all that soon.” Apsell referred to the rogue computer from 2001 A Space Odyssey, another great story about man vs. machine.

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