Of the three contestants on an upcoming series of Jeopardy episodes, only two will be actual human beings.

Jeopardy has announced that it’ll be pitting two of its best contestants ever against one that isn’t even human in an upcoming series of three episodes. IBM’s Watson, an artificial intelligence program, will go up against the best trivia-answering humans that the world has to offer for a prize of $1 million.

The competition has been in the works for four years simply because of its nature. Jeopardy‘s contestants often answer questions posed in an abnormal manner, with puns and wordplay, so creating a computer that can analyze these questions in the same way and formulate an answer within seconds was a seemingly impossible task.

However, Watson has recently been defeating former Jeopardy contestants in more than 50 closed tests on a regular basis. IBM hasn’t shared the software’s record, but it speaks volumes that the company is confident enough to put Watson up against the best performing contestants in Jeopardy history. IBM’s research team says it “believes that Watson is ready for this challenge based on its ability to rapidly comprehend what the Jeopardy clue is asking, analyze the information it has access to, come up with precise answers, and develop an accurate confidence in its response.”

Watson will face Brad Rutter, the record holder for Jeopardy winnings with over $3.2 million, and Ken Jennings, who holds the record for Jeopardy‘s longest winning streak at 74 days. The AI be represented by some kind of on-screen avatar, hopefully a Terminator bot. Watson is debuting on Jeopardy because it’s one of the “benchmarks of ultimate knowledge,” says executive producer Harry Friedman.

These mega-geniuses are sure to put Watson on the grindstone. Watson is part of IBM’s DeepQA project that strives to build computers that can operate on human terms. In other words, artificial intelligence on the level of Star Trek‘s computer. The goal is to infuse natural human language and understanding into the massive information storage capacity of a computer.

The Jeopardy man vs. machine challenge will air from February 14-16, 2011 with the winner bringing home $1 million, $300,000 for second place, and $200,000 for third. IBM vows to donate any money that Watson wins to charity, while Rutter and Jennings will offer half of their winnings to the same cause.

When AI defeats human opponents in closed environments like those seen in videogames or even Chess, it’s easy to comprehend. If Watson can beat Jeopardy‘s greatest at their own game, it could be an indication of AI’s bright future as the ruler of humanity, though right away Watson is likely to be used for diagnosis of illnesses or in customer support. If you think calling a support line is annoying now, just wait until Watson is on the other end.

Source: Jeopardy

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