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Elementary, My Dear Watson: On 'Jeopardy,' Computer Bites Man
February 17, 2011  | By David Bianculli

Ken Jennings, until now the best contestant ever to play Jeopardy!, was trounced by IBM's Watson supercomputer in this week's two-game, three-day duel -- but in the final "Final Jeopardy," accepted defeat in a way that was lovably, laughably human. Beneath his correct answer of "Bram Stoker," Jennings added, "I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords"...

It was a fabulous display of artificial intelligence -- and of intelligent television.


Like IBM Deep Blue's defeat of chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in the 1990s, this week's showdown on the syndicated Jeopardy! series, pitting IBM's Watson against Jennings and fellow human super-contestant Brad Rutter, was a televised fable for modern times.

It was John Henry against the steam drill all over again. And this time, it was drill, baby, drill, all the way.

Well, almost all the way. There was one point, in Wednesday's final game, where Ken Jennings took advantage of a Daily Double doubling of his total to amass a substantial lead over both his human and inhuman competitors. But Watson kept going, kept giving correct answers, and wound up winning both games handily.

Well, if handily applies when you don't have hands.

What was most fascinating about the contest wasn't the intellectual beatdown that took place as Watson got so many things right -- seven in a row at one point, five in a row at another -- but the rare times Watson slipped up.


Danger Mouse, for example, was one of the few pop references to elude his memory-bank search. And in the first game's Final Jeopardy category, "U.S. Cities," Watson answered with a city that wasn't even in the United States: Toronto. (To be fair, Watson knew he didn't know, and followed his answer with several question marks.)

At another time, Watson gave the same incorrect response as Jennings had just given. Watson has no ears, and played the game with no concern about what others were doing or saying.

Watson also had some uniquely peculiar algorithms when it came time to wager specific amounts on Daily Doubles. The first time Watson was given the opportunity to wager all or part of his winnings, Watson offered the oddly precise amount of "$6,435."

"I won't ask," host Alex Trebek said, shaking his head and drawing a huge laugh from the studio audience.

At the end of the three-day experiment, Trebek tried to ease the pain of the computerized trouncing by pointing out that "Watson was developed by some very talented PEOPLE."

Yeah, and so were the Cylons that staged a revolt against humanity in Battlestar Galactica.

I'll take TV WARNED US for $1000, Alex...




cantinflas said:

I think this was the first time Ken has beat Brad Rutter, and it was great TV. Ken, despite his obvious frustration at having answers, but not the buzzer speed, was gracious in defeat and the final result was the most possible money to charity.

Huzzah to Sony, Jeopardy!, IBM, Jennings and Rutter!

Comment posted on February 17, 2011 12:08 PM

Erin said:

I thoroughly enjoyed Watson on Jeopardy, though it was a little silly. It didn't seem that Watson had more intelligence than Ken and Brad, just more speed, as he was able to beat them to the buzzer so often (which must have been particularly frustrating to Ken, who seemed to have the timing of the signaling device down pat during his earlier run). I wished they had explained how they (if they) accounted for the millisecond delay between human comprehension and physical reaction in Watson's responses.

Further, I would guess that should Ken, Watson, and Brad been asked the same questions and all could have responded, Ken and Brad would have answered more correctly in the sheer number of answers than Watson.

Finally, Toronto as a US City? Some programmer surely has egg on his or her face for that one!

Nonetheless, it was quite fun and Watson's abilities were very impressive. I'll just keep watching my Jeopardy with human contestants, at least until Skynet takes over.

Comment posted on February 17, 2011 12:23 PM

Eileen said:

Now this is reality tv! What a great three days it was for Jeopardy, and we the viewers. And the money going to charity instead of to some drunken bubblehead at the Jersey Shore was particularly gratifying.

Amazing how far technology has come in really a few short decades.

In my dreams I would love to see a "Jeopardy Kids" show; if I were a teacher, and such a show existed, it would be considered nightly homework to watch & answer along.

We can all dream right?

[I'll take Parallel Universes for $100, Eileen... Gladly. -- DB]

Comment posted on February 17, 2011 6:15 PM

New Buffalo MI fishing said:

Speech/video recognition is not the point. The point is that Watson can come up with the correct answer in two or three seconds. The impressive thing is not so much that he won in terms of buzzing and dollar amounts, it's that he knew as many or more of the correct answers as the humans did. Not everything is in Watson's favor; when the clue Trebek reads is short, only one or two words, Watson still has to process for a few seconds before coming up with his answer. You could see this last night in the final game when Ken or Brad would already have given their answers before Watson's top three choices appeared on the screen.

Comment posted on February 17, 2011 10:26 PM
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