Gov lessons from Jeopardy's Watson computer challenge

Wednesday - 2/16/2011, 6:04pm EST

Dave McQueeney, Vice President of Software, IBM

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The IBM supercomputer now competing against humans on Jeopardy! uses technology that could help agencies deliver services more efficiently.

"Many of our customers, especially the government customers, have enormous data sources and they feel there's tremendous insight available in those data sources if only they had the tools to process them," said Dave McQueeney, vice president of software at IBM, in an interview with the DorobekINSIDER.

Instead of poring through massive amounts of unstructured data, agencies can utilize the question-answer software built into the computer, named Watson after IBM's founder Thomas Watson.

Designed by IBM researchers over four years, Watson understands natural language and can deliver an answer to a question posed by a human. The supercomputer then reaches into a vast amount of information downloaded to its memory and determines the right answer, as well as give its level of confidence in that answer.

The technology represents a breakthrough in analyzing natural human language, according to IBM. Jeopardy! was an ideal test for Watson's capabilities to analyze the nuances of the English language.

"In Jeopardy!, the clue - as they call it - is deliberately obscured by humor and witty comments and double meanings, and there's a big challenge there," McQueeney said.

In competition, Watson was not connected to the Internet and could only rely on the data already in its memory, McQueeney said.

Watson is winning against the game show's most celebrated contestants. On Tuesday, Watson was leading with more than $35,700 with Ken Jennings at $4,800 and Brad Mutter at $10,400 after the first round.

The finale of the three-day man vs. machine Jeopardy! challenge is Wednesday.

Watch video of the competition.