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Jeopardy! The IBM Challenge

Rensselaer professors and scientists, and lead developers of the IBM Watson computer, joined an enthusiastic audience of students and visitors to watch as Watson faced off against the two all-time Jeopardy! champions on Feb. 14, 15, and 16 on the large high-definition screen in the EMPAC Concert Hall.

Several of the scientists behind the development of Watson are Rensselaer graduates. David Ferrucci ’94, the IBM lead scientist on the project, earned his Ph.D. at Rensselaer. Chris Welty ’85 (who earned all three of his degrees at Rensselaer) is a member of the IBM Watson algorithms team and a former director of Rensselaer’s computer science laboratory. Welty participated in all three viewing events and shared behind-the-scenes stories with the audience. He was joined by Adam Lally ’98, another IBM software engineer on the Watson project.

All three events included panel discussions featuring the IBM experts along with Rensselaer professors and administrators before the show aired, followed by Q&A. Welty and Institute experts discussed the Watson technology and its importance in the development of benefits ranging from medicine to science to computing.

According to IBM, “Jeopardy! The IBM Challenge” poses a specific question with very real business implications: “Can a system be designed that applies advanced data management and analytics to natural language in order to uncover a single, reliable insight—in a fraction of a second?” The game of Jeopardy! makes great demands on its players — from the range of topical knowledge covered to the nuances in language employed in the clues. Can the analytical power of a computer system — normally accustomed to executing precise requests— overcome these obstacles? Can the troves of knowledge written in human terms become easily searchable by a machine in order to deliver a single, precise answer? Can a quiz show help advance science?

To learn more about IBM and Watson, and to view archived footage of the events, go to

Photos by Kris Qua and Martin Benjamin.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 5, Number 4, March 4, 2011
©2010 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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