One January morning in 2011, Dave Ferrucci, head of the IBM Research “Watson” supercomputer project, sat in a studio audience as Alex Trebek hosted a special taping of the American TV quiz show Jeopardy! The match pitted Watson against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the all-time top scoring contestants, in two games spread over three days. The Final Jeopardy! question for Game 1, in the category “U.S. Cities,” was “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest for a World War II battle.” As Ferrucci watched his machine answer “What is Toronto?” he tensed up and looked to Eric Brown, one of the lead researchers on the project, who was sitting next to him. From the look on Brown’s face, it was evident that he too knew this was not one of Watson’s finer moments. The same algorithms that produced an apparently stupid answer in this case were the foundation for Watson’s genius on so many other questions—either getting the answer right or deciding not to answer based on a probability assessment. Both also knew that explaining “Toronto” would consume them for months to come.
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