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IBM's Watson set for 'Jeopardy' battle

Program powered by an IBM Power7 server will compete against "Jeopardy" superstars Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a contest to air in February.

Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter
Watson's opponents: Ken Jennings (left) and Brad Rutter. IBM

Alex, I'll take Big Brains vs. Big Iron for $1 million.

Last year, we got word that Watson, a program powered by an IBM Power7 server, might be competing against superstars from the TV quiz show "Jeopardy." Now, it's settled. Watson will face "Jeopardy" standouts Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a competition scheduled to air February 14-16. Two matches will be played over three consecutive days.

Watson is named after company founder Thomas J. Watson and optimized to quickly analyze clues for complex language such as subtle meaning, irony, and riddles, IBM said in a statement announcing the contest.

Jennings won more than $2.5 million during his record 72 consecutive "Jeopardy" wins, and Rutter is the show's biggest winner with more than $3.2 million. The computer program took and passed the same contestant test that humans take to qualify to be on the show and has competed in more than 50 "sparring games" against former Jeopardy Tournament of Champions contestants.

Watson trained for its "Jeopardy" stint at IBM Research's Yorktown, N.Y., facility. There, the institution built a faux "Jeopardy" studio and sucked in huge amounts of content from the show trying to program a new computer to learn how to beat the best.

"After four years, our scientific team believes that Watson is ready for this challenge based on its ability to rapidly comprehend what the 'Jeopardy' clue is asking, analyze the information it has access to, come up with precise answers, and develop an accurate confidence in its response," David Ferrucci, the scientist who lead the team that created Watson, said in a statement.

The upcoming matchup is reminiscent of the 1997 chess contest between world champion Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue, a computer designed by IBM scientists specifically for this task. Deep Blue beat Kasparov in the six-game match 2-1, with three draws. Kasparov protested and demanded a rematch, but IBM declined.

The winner will pocket $1 million, while the second-place finisher will receive $300,000 and the third will get $200,000. Jennings and Rutter plan to donate 50 percent of their winnings to charity, while IBM plans to donate all of its winnings.