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On Jeopardy, Watson's mistakes reveal its genius

Last night on Jeopardy, Watson did really, really well. But the machine also made some silly mistakes. Here's why.

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Jeopardy host Alex Trebek (l.) poses with contestants Ken Jennings (c.) and Brad Rutter and a computer named Watson in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. On Feb. 14, 'Jeopardy!' will begin airing two matches spread over three days between Jennings, Rutter and Watson.

Jeopardy Productions, Inc./AP

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Watching the first night of the Jeopardy match pitting the IBM Watson program against human contestants was great fun. One nice touch was the "backstage" display that showed three answers Watson considered for each question and the machine's confidence in them. That's interesting, because it gives you some insight into the range of things it was considering.

Some of the categories were obviously softballs for Watson. One category, "Beatles People," was easy because simply matching song lyrics would get the program a long way (but not all the way) to finding the answer. The rules of the game prohibited the computer from going out on the Web to find answers. Watson has to rely on its own resources, stored in advance. But in its 15 petabytes of storage, Watson basically has, more or less, a copy of a good swath of the Web.

Obviously, it had a copy of the Beatles lyrics that it was searching. Otherwise it wouldn't have had a prayer on those questions.

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Watson ended the first round tied for first, with $5,000; Ken Jennings was third with $2,000. But to get an idea of how well Watson really did, you can run your own contest at home, against what is Watson's real competitor. Not Brad Rutter or Ken Jennings, but a search engine like Google. Simply type in the clue to Google and see what you get. Like Watson, Google analyzes huge quantities of text, counting words and keeping track of how often words tend to occur together. Like Watson, Google uses multiple approaches to analyze text, and then has a kind of "voting" scheme to figure out how confident it is of the answer.

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