Competing on ‘Jeopardy!’ Next Week: UMass Amherst Computer Scientists Helped to Develop IBM’s ‘Watson’ Computing System

AMHERST, Mass. - When Watson, billed as "the smartest machine on Earth" competes on "Jeopardy!" next week against the show’s two most successful players, computer scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst will be cheering for the machine. UMass Amherst is one of eight universities collaborating with IBM on the Question Answering (QA) technology behind the company’s intelligent new computing system.

Watson will compete against the two quiz show contestants with the longest winning streaks, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, in the first-ever human vs. machine "Jeopardy!" competition, which will air next Monday through Wednesday evenings, Feb. 14, 15 and 16.

Computer scientist James Allan and members of the UMass Amherst research team including David Smith, assistant research professor, and graduate student Elif Aktolga, contribute special expertise to the project on several fronts, notably information retrieval, or text search. This capability of QA technology is the first step taken when looking for text that’s most likely to contain accurate answers, Allan says. The system’s deep language processing capabilities then analyze the returned information to find the actual answers within that text.

Allan is co-director of the Center for Intelligent Information Retrieval (CIIR) at UMass Amherst with Distinguished Professor Bruce Croft, who led the research on the open source Indri search engine being used in the Watson system.

Applying QA technology in a fast-moving quiz show is a challenge not only because answers must be found quickly, but because just understanding the question requires using sophisticated forms of reasoning such as metaphor, puns and puzzles, which go well beyond basic language skills, the experts say.

For the first time, a computing system is able to analyze natural language and complexities in which humans excel at understanding and computers do not. In this case, IBM has designed a learning system that can analyze information and respond to questions. The company says it’s the next stage in computing.

David Ferrucci, leader of the IBM Watson project team, says, "Watson is a breakthrough in human-to-computer communication and, through our work with the University of Massachusetts Amherst, we will continue to develop QA technologies that will allow computers to be even more helpful to humans moving forward."

Watson’s ability to understand the meaning and context of human language and rapidly process information to find precise answers to complex questions holds enormous potential to transform how computers help people accomplish tasks in business and their personal lives. Watson will enable people to rapidly find specific answers to complex questions. Ongoing research collaborations will help Watson to improve all kinds of human activities such as healthcare, banking and government.

"Enabling computers to understand and answer questions as well as people do is indeed a grand challenge. It is very gratifying to see the degree of involvement of UMass alumni, faculty, and students in the DeepQA project," says Andrew Barto, chair of the UMass Amherst computer science department. "Whatever the outcome, this will be an historic encounter."

Other UMass Amherst computer science researchers who participated in the project are student Pallika Kanani, who worked with the IBM’s DeepQA team during an internship last year. "I worked on applying machine learning techniques to integrate existing answer-typing algorithms," said Kanani. "It was a wonderful experience to work on such a unique and historical project and being part of a highly energetic team."

Alumni Eric Brown, John Prager and Chang Wang are now IBM researchers working on the DeepQA project to get Watson ready for the "Jeopardy!" challenge. Brown works on the design and implementation of DeepQA architecture, as well as algorithms for special question processing. Prager works in question analysis and categorization, developing algorithms for special question processing that handle such things as wordplay. Wang develops relation detection algorithms for DeepQA.

Watson is named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson and was built by IBM scientists who wanted to create a computing system to rival a human’s ability to answer questions posed in natural language with speed, accuracy and confidence. The "Jeopardy!" format provides the ultimate challenge because the game’s clues involve analyzing subtle meaning, irony, riddles and other complexities in which humans excel but computers traditionally do not.