With the words, "This is Jeopardy", Dr. Jim Hendler (Constellation Professor, Tetherless World Research Constellation) kicked off last night's edition of Jeopardy, the long-running television game show.

Perhaps for the very first time, host Alex Trebek did not utter his signature words to kick off the program. Hendler held that honor, at least last night at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's (RPI) EMPAC facility where hundreds of Institute students, alumni, faculty, and friends gathered to watch a computer contest two skilled humans in a contest of knowledge, language, word play, and witticisms. It was a venue, in short, in which the humans rooted for the computer and "Geeks ruled." I'm looking forward to returning to my alma mater again tonight for the "Double Jeopardy" and "Final Jeopardy" portions of the contest.


As Trebek explained to last night's national television audience, the folks at IBM approached Jeopardy to gain the show's cooperation in a project that tests the limits of our ability to program computers. The result is a three-party Jeopardy broadcast in which Watson, a computer housed in an IBM facility in Yorktown Heights competes against former Jeopardy champions Ken Jenkins and Brad Rutter.


RPI alumni David Ferrucci (94), Chris Welty (95), and Adam Lally (98) all played key roles in developing Watson and overcoming the barriers that prevented earlier generations of computers from understanding that nuance of human language, making RPI an ideal host for a community screening of the event. Institute President Shirley Jackson led a panel discussion that examined these issues and talked about the development process. The panel included Welty, Hendler, and Jim Myers, director of the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations. A panel at tonight's event will also include Lally. I'll be Tweeting live (#rpi), if you want to follow the proceedings. To learn more about Watson, visit the IBM website. Currently 56 percent of the voters (60,704) expect Watson to win, according to a poll that is open on the IBM website.

Judging from a short video, Watson appeared to be only about 10 fully loaded racks, which I found surprisingly small, given the amount of data, the limited processing times, and the complicated algorithms required to meet the challenge posed by Watson's human competitors. I'm sure Watson uses a lot of energy too.  Trebek made note of the high heat and noise levels Watson generates, so IBM had to address the problems to keep Watson on line.

I am most impressed by the impact Watson had on my guests at RPI last night, two 16-year girls, my daughter Brigid and her friend Rebecca. Both enthusiastically listened to a panel discussion that they could not have understood well because of a lack of background. Not only did they want to return a second night, they recruited their friend Priscilla and Rebecca's younger brother Benjamin and mother to join them.

As both girls are starting to think about college, I happily drafted Watson into our conversations intended to broaden their horizons and raise their goals. The pure enthusiasm of the mostly undergraduate audience also helped, as did the free food and t-shirts.

Many in the audience were awed at Watson's success in the first round of Jeopardy. I'm more amazed at how a roomful of computers could spark young imaginations. Let's call it a Watson Moment, and we should learn how to take advantage of innovations like this.