Supercomputer Watson pounds Pitt, CMU teams in 'Jeopardy!' match


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The trash talking started early, with deans from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh praising their students' intellectual firepower as they prepared to take on the Watson supercomputer in a game of "Jeopardy!"

But by the time Double Jeopardy rolled around, university loyalties were no more -- the capacity crowd at CMU's 450-seat McConomy Auditorium was cheering any time a human managed to even beat Watson to the buzzer.

In the end, the newfangled computer delivered an old-fashioned beating, winning the match with $52,199 over Pitt's $12,937 and CMU's $7,463.

The event marked the first time that Watson, who defeated two all-time "Jeopardy!" champions in a three-day televised competition in February, visited a college campus. It was also Watson's first match against teams of college students, said David Ferrucci, IBM's lead investigator for Watson.

PG VIDEO: IBM'S WATSON TAKES ON PITT, CMU STUDENTS IN 'JEOPARDY'

The "Jeopardy!" match with students capped a day of scholarly discussion about Watson at both campuses, involving technical symposiums, a keynote lecture and a question-and-answer session involving experts from IBM, Pitt and CMU.

IBM chose Pittsburgh first because of CMU's contributions to the development of Watson, led by computer science professor Eric Nyberg.

"This is the first time we're bringing together Watson, IBM scientists, faculty and students to prepare for the next evolution in computing," said Bernie Meyerson, vice president of innovation and university programs for IBM. "Our hope is that seeing Watson first hand will spark innovation from the leaders of tomorrow."

For the college students who went up against Watson, the result was frustrating but not surprising.

"We went into it expecting to only get one or two questions right," said Erik Schmidt, a CMU junior majoring in electrical and computer engineering.

"Our goal was not to be negative," said Richard Kester, a Pitt senior majoring in history and neuroscience. "I was expecting to get trounced by Watson."

As a member of quiz bowl teams in college in high school, Mr. Kester followed Ken Jennings on "Jeopardy!" and even met him once. "As far beyond me as [Mr. Jennings] is, if Watson beat him, it won't work out well for me," he said after the match.

At one point in the first round, Watson had $12,400, to Pitt's $1,000 and CMU's $1,400. The college students seemed to usually know the answer, but simply could not ring in faster than Watson.

Pitt surged at the end of Double Jeopardy with surprising success in a "Wine, White Wine" category -- despite answering "Jack and Coke" for a Daily Double question that was actually seeking "What is Sauvignon Blanc?"

Besides Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Kester, the other members of the university teams were Connor Fallon and Will Zhang from CMU and Danielle Arbogast and Brian Sisco from Pitt.

The students played against a laptop version of Watson because the actual supercomputer, which involves 90 different servers, was too big to make the trip. The actual Watson had already answered all the questions asked in Wednesday's match, so IBM just programmed Watson's original answers and speeds into the laptop.

Events such as the one held at CMU and Pitt mark the next phases of Watson's development -- of broader scientific research and business applications in fields such as health care and defense, said Mr. Ferrucci.

And while some in the crowd may have been shocked by the "intelligence" of a computer able to parse complicated sentences as fast or faster than humans, it didn't seem remarkable at all for students who have grown up in the Internet age.

"This has been a long time coming, hasn't it," noted Mr. Kester.


Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.


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