Winning “Jeopardy!” Could be as Easy as I.B.M

042809 Alex Trebek and Ken Jennings P1

Sure, a computer once beat Garry Kasparov at chess – but can I.B.M.’s newest games whiz withstand Alex Trebek’s sarcasm?

In a stunt with both potentially scary – and comic – ramifications, a computer could be a contestant on “Jeopardy!,” The New York Times reports.

The format is far from clear, but the computer will get the questions via text, and somehow spit out the answers. There’s talk that all-time “Jeopardy!” champ Ken Jennings – the breathing databank of the trivial – will be thrust into the Kasparov role of defending humankind against the machine.

“Jeopardy!” may not be brain surgery, but it seems a computer would have a harder time keeping up than in an ostensibly more difficult game like chess, where the moves are at least defined and the pace can be slow. “Jeopardy!” relies on speed and knowledge of the arcane – what would a computer make of categories like "Potpourri" and "Potent Potables?"

More questions about the changing game of answers: What would money mean to a machine? Will it break into a paralyzing, rust-inducing sweat as the “Final Jeopardy” music plays? If the computer loses, what would it do with a year’s supply of Turtle Wax?

Think of the possibilities, though, for future editions of “Celebrity Jeopardy!”: Conan O’Brien’s Pimpbot 5000 going up against Robbie the Robot and the cutthroat HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Jokes are a human defense mechanism, and may be a natural reaction for some to this experiment -- which, in addition to potentially boosting ratings, could have implications for the developing field artificial intelligence. I.B.M.’s Jeopardy!-playing machine will attempt to instantly “understand,” analyze and directly answer complex questions. 

“The big goal is to get computers to be able to converse in human terms,” David A. Ferrucci, an I.B.M. artificial intelligence researcher, told The Times.

In the long run, what chance do humans have if better-informed robots can spout more interesting trivia at cocktail parties?

There’s another possible outcome that the folks at “Jeopardy!” may not yet have considered -- an answer that Trebek won't be around to deliver: This “Jeopardy!” host was replaced by a robot.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.

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