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Jeopardy! contestant Ken Jennings with the Watson avatar (Seth Wenig)
Jeopardy! contestant Ken Jennings with the Watson avatar (Seth Wenig)

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IBM's 'Jeopardy!' Watson: Shades of Terminator Add to ...

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The rise of the machines Watching IBM's super computer Watson best two of the great stars of Jeopardy! over the past two nights was fascinating, somewhat creepy and, yes, a little bit frightening.

Over two episodes, the computer - it's actually a massive thing represented on the show by an avatar with a weird electronic voice - has outdone Jeopardy! superstars Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, ending last night with $35,734 to Mr. Rutter's $10,400 and the $4,800 tallied by Mr. Jennings. The computer is named Watson, after the company's founders.

There are many aspects to this story of man v. artificial intelligence, highlighted so far on a trivia quiz show. Forget for a minute about the fantastic publicity for IBM, and the fact that Jeopardy! has enjoyed its best ratings in years. The opportunities could be endless, in terms of uses in business and society in general.

On its website, in a posting titled "Beyond Jeopardy!" the company looks at a "new era in advanced analytics and specialized systems." And, it boasts, "the IBM team is working to deploy this technology across industries such as health care, finance and customer service."

The technology world is abuzz with the possibilities, and what it all could mean. One commentator, author Martin Ford writing on the website of Fortune magazine, goes so far as to warn that humans may have cause for concern in terms of their work, asking whether computers could soon compete with people for knowledge-based jobs.

"Unlike other advanced software applications, Watson has a command of natural language, it can simultaneously launch hundreds of information-seeking algorithms, and, perhaps most importantly, it has the ability to learn and improve its performance over time," Mr. Ford writes.

"Watson is by no means a true thinking machine," he adds. "Rather, it's a highly specialized application designed especially to play Jeopardy! All existing practical applications of artificial intelligence are similarly specialized - we are at least decades away from creating general, human-like artificial intelligence, and it may even be unachievable.

"But don't assume that means artificial intelligence won't replace workers. Nearly all jobs in today's economy are specialized, and as applications like Watson become more versatile and affordable, they will be used in a variety of areas, especially in large organizations."

Watson is just one aspect of artificial intelligence. Other researchers, as Mr. Ford notes, are working on applications that promise stunning benefits, though it does bring to mind the rise of the machines in the Terminator movies.

(It may be a super computer, but it still needs geography lessons. In the Final Jeopardy portion last night, in the category of U.S. cities, Watson's response was "What is Toronto?" to the clue "Its largest airport was named for a World War II hero; its second largest for a World War II battle." Elementary, my dear Watson? It's Chicago, and Billy Bishop, if that's what you were thinking, was Canadian. And the First World War at that.)

Rogers profit dips Rogers Communications Inc. today posted a 3-per-cent decline in profit for the last quarter, falling short of analysts' expectations as Canada's largest wireless provider continues to suffer from a wave of new competition.

As new companies such as Mobilicity and Wind Mobile continue to push in, and old rivals BCE Inc. and Telus Corp. gain market share, Rogers profit fell to $359-million and 64 cents a share from $370-million and 61 cents a share a year earlier, Globe and Mail telecom writer Iain Marlow reports. Revenue was up 3 per cent to $3.2-billion. The company also announced an 11 per cent increase to its annualized dividend, bringing it to $1.42.

BHP has no regrets BHP Billiton Ltd. says its bid for Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc. was priced fairly at the time it was made last summer and believes there wasn't much it could have done differently to persuade the Canadian government not to block the proposal.

BHP chief executive officer Marius Kloppers said the company's disadvantage was not being an operating miner in the province of Saskatchewan at the time of the bid to "show that we are of worth," Globe and Mail mining writer Brenda Bouw reports today.

Borders files for Chapter 11 Borders Group, the giant American company synonymous with the book superstore, filed today for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, saying it will close some 200 outlets. Borders said in its filing it has debts of $1.29-billion (U.S.), compared to assets of $1.28-billion.

Borders, having faced stiff competition from the likes of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., said it received debtor-in-possession financing from GE Capital, and would restructure and continue to operate.

"Borders Group does not have the capital resources it needs to be a viable competitor," said president Mike Edwards.

Sanofi-Aventis to acquire Genzyme Sanofi-Aventis SA today struck a deal to acquire Genzyme Corp. for more than $20-billion (U.S.).

Under the deal, Genzyme shareholders will receive about $74 cash plus what is known as a contingent value right, meaning extra payments if certain goals are met.

Talisman loss widens Talisman Eenergy Inc. today posted a wider fourth-quarter loss of $304-million or 30 cents a share. That compared to a loss of $111-million or 11 cents a year earlier.

Earnings from continuing operations were $84-million or 8 cents, compared to 68-million or 7 cents a year earlier.

U.S. housing starts rise Fresh numbers on housing construction in the United States are buoying hopes today.

Construction starts climbed 14.6 per cent in January to an annual rate of 596,000, the best showing in months, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, though building permits fell 10.6 per cent.

Starts were pushed up by multi-unit construction, which is traditionally volatile. The key segment of single-family housing, fell 1 per cent.

Boyd Erman's Morning Meeting What's hot in U.S. real estate? Not much, except farmland in the middle of the country's agricultural belt, Streetwise columnist Boyd Erman reports today.

In Personal Finance today Too many students don't think about the day their debt comes due. Parents, educators and lenders need to step up to the plate with some guidance on borrowing.

Parents know financial literacy needs to begin at home. Here are a few tips on how to get started.

In this week's Cash Clash, she is about to inherit, and he thinks it's her money to manage. With a baby on the way, what should they do with the money?

From today's Report on Business

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