The Science Behind Watson

Watson understanding natural language, breaking down the barrier between people and machines.

See how Watson "learns," tracking feedback - learning from
success and failure - to improve future responses.

The Jeopardy! challenge

In February 2011, Watson appeared on Jeopardy!, the quiz show known for its complex, tricky questions and very smart champions. The IBM team chose Jeopardy! because the show represents an extraordinary challenge. The way questions are posed on the show, the broad range of topics covered and the pace of the game represent an enormously difficult task for a computer.

The clues given to contestants require analysis and understanding of subtle meaning, irony, riddles and other language complexities in which humans excel and computers traditionally do not. The Watson team had to solve this language problem as a first step to success on the show.

Once a player understands the question, the player has to sift through their own knowledge to come up with a response. Although the player would like to always have the "right" answer, often they find themselves with a range of responses from which they must choose the one in which they have the most confidence. For the best human contestants, this process of searching, hypothesis, analysis and decision comes naturally. They've learned how to do this through education, watching the show and simply making decisions in real life. Watson had to be programmed - taught to make decisions this way.

Finally the pace of the show dictates that all of this processing has to take place very quickly. A player has to understand the question, find an answer and decide if it is worth risking the penalty of being wrong before ringing in. Three contestants are evaluating the question and only one gets the chance to answer the question. This means that the Watson team needed to compress the language processing and the analytics - sifting through 200 million pages of information - in the span of seconds.

Learn more about the Jeopardy! challenge

  • Why Jeopardy!

    Learn about the unique hurdles on Jeopardy! that Watson had to overcome in order to achieve the scientific goals of the project.

  • Countdown to Jeopardy!

    Watson competed against the two greatest Jeopardy! champions in history: Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. Learn more about the competitors who participated in that historic challenge.

  • Watson after Jeopardy!

    Beyond Jeopardy!, the IBM team is working to deploy this technology across industries such as healthcare, finance and customer service.