Computer history for $400?

An IBM computer won the practice round on popular quiz show Jeopardy! against two top contestants, showing artificial intelligence has come a long way in simulating how humans think.

We have created a computer system which has the ability to understand natural human language, which is a very difficult thing for a computer to do, said John Kelly, the director of IBM Research.

In the field of artificial intelligence, people spend their lifetimes trying to advance that science inches. What Watson does and has demonstrated is the ability to advance the field of artificial intelligence by miles.

The machine, named Watson after legendary International Business Machines president Thomas Watson, is a showcase of the company's computing expertise and research in advanced science.

It also shows IBM -- which turns 100 years old this year -- wants to stay at the forefront of technology, even as companies such as Google Inc and Apple Inc have become the industry's popular leaders.

IBM says the ability to understand language makes Watson far more evolved than Deep Blue, the company's supercomputer which won against world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997.

The biggest challenge for IBM scientists was teaching Watson to differentiate between literal and metaphorical expressions and understanding puns and slang.

Feeding it knowledge was easier. Watson is not plugged into the Internet, but has a database covering a broad range of topics, including history and entertainment.

At Thursday's practice, held at IBM's Eero Saarinen-designed research facility in the quiet New York suburb of Yorktown Heights, Watson showed off its familiarity with musical film.

The film Gigi gave him his signature song, 'Thank Heaven for Little Girls', asked host Alex Trebek.

Who is Maurice Chevalier, replied Watson.

The machine, which combines IBM's refrigerator-sized Power7 computers, was too big to fit on the set and was connected on the ground floor.

It also accurately answered questions on Agatha Christie and the city of Jericho.

Watson triumphed in the first practice round, earning $4,400, while Ken Jennings, who won 74 games in a row during the show's 2004-2005 season, trailed with $3,400. Brad Rutter, who has earned a cumulative $3.3 million on the show, came in last.

I'm very impressed, said Jennings, a former computer programer.

A win on the actual show, which goes on air February 14, 15 and 16, would be a triumph for IBM, which spends around $6 billion per year in research and development. An unspecified portion of that spending goes to what IBM calls grand challenges, or big, multi-year science projects such as Watson and Deep Blue.

While Watson might not turn into a commercial project right away, IBM executives said its linguistic and analytical capabilities may eventually help the company develop new products in areas such as medical diagnosis.

Jennings, however, said he thought Watson could be beaten in the actual competition.

Watson is fallible, he said.

Fellow contestant Brad Rutter agreed, citing Watson's weakness at grasping humor -- a key part of some of the questions.

In the morning session, in a question about the actor and musician Jamie Foxx, who learned to play the cello, Watson came up with a baffling answer, who is Beethoven?

I get the two mixed up all the time, joked Rutter, earning guffaws.

Watson did not laugh, but went on to win the practice round.

(Reporting by Ritsuko Ando; editing by Andre Grenon)