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IBM program to take on 'Jeopardy' champions

Big Blue took on chess champion Garry Kasparov. Now, an IBM program called Watson is preparing to take on champions of the game show "Jeopardy."

What is the point?

No, no. I know that the ultimate goal is to have computers far more clever than humans so that humans can relax and be just as stupid as they already know themselves to be.

Still, one can't help but feel a shudder beneath one's shirt at the prospect of an IBM computer program beating 74-time champion Ken Jennings at "Jeopardy."

I was fine with IBM's Deep Blue taking on chess champion Garry Kasparov. The man had been fighting Deep Red all his life, so he was hardly going to be intimidated by another lumbering machine of power.

However, according to the New York Times, we may now be facing the prospect of an IBM program called Watson (named not after Sherlock's boyfriend, but after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson Sr.) taking on Jeopardy champions, including, perhaps, 74-time winner Ken Jennings at one of America's most revered, um, mind games.

IBM hasn't quite decided what Watson will look like. I would suggest a box with a cape draped over it and a pipe in one of its slots. Or perhaps just a slab of metal in a Darth Vader outfit.

Oh, couldn't we get Garry Kasparov to take over from Alex Trebek for just one night? CC BA Sykes/Flickr

The nice thing about "Jeopardy" is that you really have no idea what the questions might be.

There are far more possibilities to take account of than there are in chess. Watson isn't merely going to have to think ahead. He's going to have to interpret and understand. Which, as we know in our own dealings with humans, is a terribly tricky affair.

"The big goal is to get computers to be able to converse in human terms," the artificially intelligent IBM team leader, David A. Ferrucci, told the Times. "And we're not there yet." Shame.

The IBM brain boxes are aiming to create software that really can get frightfully semantic. Because, of course, that could make a lot of money. If it worked.

Watson won't have to push buzzers and all that. He'll (it's not quite decided whether Watson will be male yet) get the questions as computer text. And Jennings, if he participates, will merely try to recreate his normal Jeopardized self.

However, he will be hard-pushed not to be distracted by Watson, as Watson's computer, a Blue Gene monster, will have a delightful synthesized voice. Yes, Darth Vader, indeed.

You might be thinking that Watson's Blue Gene will merely be hooked up to the Web. Not so. He'll have an internal database. And in trial runs his performance has been described as "aggressive and competent." Well, at least he's not Omarosa from "The Apprentice", then.

However, Watson has apparently got his words mixed up sometimes. He thought "sheet" was a fruit.

Those of us trying to preserve the last vestiges of humanity can only hope that when it comes to the big night, Watson's performance will be fruitful.

Or, as the Great Jeopardy Software itself might put it, sheety.