Jeopardy! Smackdown

IBM is building a computer that can master Alex Trebek’s show. Genius Ken Jennings wants a crack at it.

News that IBM is building a computer to compete against humans at Jeopardy! reminded many of the company’s man vs. machine experiment with Deep Blue, the program that beat Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997. And who better to play against the new IBM app than Ken Jennings, the Garry Kasparov of Jeopardy!?

“Short answer: yes,” says Jennnings, the all-time Jeopardy! champ, when asked if he’d like to play the computer at the game he came to rule. “I'm a Jeopardy! junkie and would love to be asked back on the show to play just about anybody: human, computer, chimp, whatever they've got.

“I'm also...a bit of a computer geek—a former programmer who took some artificial intelligence classes in colleges. So I'm fascinated by the question of how an artificial player could do at a quiz game against top competition, whether or not I'm invited to play. I genuinely don't know how it will shake out. But I've seen the Terminator movies, so I'm not 100 percent optimistic about mankind's chances here,” Jennings wrote in an email, perhaps cautioned Kasparov’s widely publicized loss.

News of IBM’s project broke Monday, and the company says it has been eyeing a televised man vs. machine Jeopardy! challenge since 2007, when it launched its DeepQA project—an attempt to build a question-answering computer than can communicate in human language. It is out of that project that Watson, as the Jeopardy!-playing computer has been dubbed, is being born.

IBM hopes the computer will be ready to compete sometime in 2010. Here’s an IBM video explaining the project:

Watson’s lead developer at IBM, Dave Ferucci, says he’s excited about the prospect of competing against Jennings, though he’s not overconfident about Watson’s chances in the matchup. It appears neither IBM nor Jennings is willing to talk any smack about a potential showdown. Vince McMahon, it appears you are needed.

“That’s great,” he said when I told him of Jennings’ response. “You know, it’s great to have the opportunity to be able to compete against the best people. … I think that will be an exciting challenge,” he said.

“I think that we have a really good approach, I think we can be competitive,” Ferucci said when I asked him whether, in his opinion, Watson could win. “I couldn’t predict that right now. I think we have a ways to go to be good enough to beat Ken.”

One of the toughest challenges for Watson’s programmers is predicting confidence in answers—in other words, programming the computer to know when to buzz. Jennings, during his record-breaking Jeopardy! run, would sometimes buzz early, then seem to think for a few seconds before answering.

“I can’t validate one way or another exactly what Ken Jennnigs was doing, but I can say the behavior you described is one that suggests that I’m extremely confident that I know all the answers,” Ferucci said. Indeed.

“And that’s remarkable. I can tell you now that Watson doesn’t know that it would know all the answers—there’s no way, so we just don’t have that level yet. So it’s important to use as much time as possible to say how confident am I going into this question,” Ferucci said.

It’s unclear, at this point, whether America will see a Watson vs. Jennings matchup. Contestants have not been announced, and such details are still being worked out, according to IBM spokesman Michael Loughran. Jeopardy! did not immediately respond to an e-mail inquiring about the matter. UPDATE: A Jeopardy! spokesman tells me that producers have neither considered nor decided upon specific dates or contestants.

Jennings holds Jeopardy!’s all-time win streak at 74 games, which came to an end Nov. 30, 2004. In 2006 he authored Brainiac, a book about the history of trivia as a subculture.