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Novell server powers 'Jeopardy!' computer

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 16 2011 7:50 p.m. MST

PROVO — In February of 1996, IBM's Deep Blue Supercomputer played a chess match with then reigning world champion Garry Kasparov of Russia. The initial event — and the rematch in 1997 — captured the imagination of millions around the world.

Kasparov won the first battle of "man versus machine," but lost the rematch.

Flash forward to 2011, and the latest version of man versus machine includes decidedly strong Utah ties — a game-show icon from Murray and a Utah County tech company involved in the development of the newest computing icon.

This time around, the machine is still an IBM supercomputer — named "Watson" — while "man" is represented by two of the world's top trivia minds.

Containing more than 200 million digital pages of information and operating at a speed of more than 80 teraflops in its digital "brain," Watson uses a combination of deep analytics and rapid processing speeds that can interpret the types of "natural language" questions used in the long-running game show.

The software used for Watson runs on a SUSE Linux Enterprise Server — developed by Novell — on 10 racks of IBM Power 750 servers. Novell has collaborated with IBM for years on developing the most "intelligent" computer ever built, according to Eric Anderson, chief technology officer for Provo-based Novell Inc.

"That machine has 200 million digital pages of information at instant recall," Anderson said Wednesday. "It's very, very difficult for a human brain to hold (that much) data at one time."

BYU grad Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the two most decorated champions in "Jeopardy" history, have been challenging Big Blue's latest incarnation of artificial intelligence with bragging rights and a million bucks at stake. Suffice it to say that Watson has gotten the best of the two champs, compiling about triple of their combined earnings during the match-up.

"It's like having a 200 million-page encyclopedia in your brain that you can instantly access," Anderson said. "Ken and Brad are pretty brilliant, but I don't think they stand a chance."

Judging from their collective performance on the show this week, he seems to be right. The human brain is just not wired to process that much information at one time.

Watson was able to "ring in" first time and time again to answer question after question, while compiling a virtually insurmountable lead against his "brainiac" human competitors.

Anderson said that being able to harness such vast amounts of information at such high processing speeds offers realistic hope for solving some of the world's most complex problems.

"It means that things like mapping the human genome become more possible events," he explained. "Or predicting catastrophic, highly data-intensive events like tornadoes … or earthquakes (become within reach).

He said such previously vexing problems are now much less daunting with the technological capability exhibited by Watson.

Anderson said many of those capabilities can also be harnessed by individuals in their own homes using similar servers and hardware.

"That same SUSE Linux operating system that you see (with) Watson doing those amazing things, is the same that you can put on the desktop or on the server that's sitting inside your house," Anderson said. "We are all uniting around that same platform … to give you the solution to various problems from your family budget to storing pictures of your kids."

e-mail: jlee@desnews.com

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