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2011's 10 Biggest Moments in Science


8
Watson Defeats Two Humans on "Jeopardy!"
First "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek lost his awesome moustache. Then a machine destroyed all humans on his show. These are dark days.
First "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek lost his awesome moustache. Then a machine destroyed all humans on his show. These are dark days.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

The artificially intelligent among us have already proven themselves superior at everything from chess to simple spelling. So why should it matter that a supercomputer rules at playing the TV game show "Jeopardy!"?

Of course, that's just what happened in 2011. IBM's Watson supercomputer defeated human adversaries in one practice round and two televised matches of the popular quiz show. The machine even took down the legendary Ken Jennings, who seemed quite a trivia machine himself when he won a record 74 games in a row.

Far from a mere publicity stunt however, the Watson victory was a stunning exhibition of both question-answering AI and a machine navigating a human world. Computers that answer casually phrased human questions have existed in science fiction for ages, but the science is deceptively complex. Watson represents one of the first real technological landmarks in the field, and while its question-answering skills are imperfect, they point to a future full of verbal robot/human interaction.

As for navigating the human world, "Jeopardy!" is hardly a bustling city street, but it is a human environment -- and one that this robot managed to master just fine. For robots to change the way we live our lives, they have to emerge from the laboratories and factories. Watson has done just that.