Watson


Two days into The IBM Challenge, it is clear the supercomputer Watson is going to handily defeat its human opponents on “Jeopardy!”

The match consists of two games played over three episodes, with the first game ending Tuesday. A full game is yet to be played on Wednesday, but here are the money totals for the three contestants going into the last day of the match: Watson, $35,734; Brad Rutter, $10,400; Ken Jennings, $4,800. It’s highly unlikely that either human contestant will catch Watson, especially because the supercomputer is quick to buzz in with correct answers and has made sensible bets on Daily Doubles and in Final Jeopardy.

Still, I will watch the last day of the match, if for no other reason than to enjoy computer dominance for the last time before Skynet attains self-awareness and takes over the world. (And now that machines are a step closer to that reality, it’s a good thing Arnold Schwarzenegger is no longer busy governing California.)

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The “Final Jeopardy!” clue Tuesday was an easy one for me: “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle.” The answer, of course, is Chicago, where the largest airport (O’Hare International Airport) is named after Edward “Butch” O’Hare, and the second-largest airport (Midway International Airport) is named after the Battle of Midway.

Both human contestants answered correctly, but Watson responded, “What is Toronto?????” (Incidentally, the category was “U.S. Cities.”) Watson’s wrong answer didn’t matter, really, as the machine bet only $974.

I held off until this afternoon to write about supercomputer Watson’s debut on “Jeopardy!” for the sake of any readers who may have recorded the show to watch later (and those who live in television markets where “Jeopardy!” airs later than it does in Chicago). But now I believe it’s safe to do so since some news outlets have published stories about the first day of the three-day IBM Challenge.

Watson is a supercomputer created by IBM programmers to beat the best human competitors at “Jeopardy!” Whether they succeeded remains to be seen Wednesday, but as of the end of Monday’s show, Watson and Brad Rutter were tied at $5,000 each, while Ken Jennings (who won an amazing 74 consecutive “Jeopardy!” games in 2004) trailed them with only $2,000. But it’s still early; the IBM Challenge consists of two games played over three days (with plenty of explanation about Watson’s programming and preparation for the contest filling the additional air time), and the first show covered only the first round of the first game. The rest of the first game will be played on today’s show, and the full second game will unfold on Wednesday’s show.

There were some interesting moments on the show. Watson’s first pick, an $800 clue, happened to be the Daily Double clue for that round. Watson also repeated an incorrect answer first given by Jennings. Watson is programmed not to repeat incorrect answers, but it didn’t know that Jennings’ “What are the ’20s?” answer was the same as its answer, “What are the 1920s?” Its IBM programmers probably weren’t happy with that moment.

A neat part of the show is the look at how Watson determines its answers. For every clue, Watson’s top three guesses at the answer are shown at the bottom of the TV screen, and Watson will try to activate its buzzer only if its top guess passes a certain threshold of probability.

I’ll watch the second show today and post about it tomorrow. I recommend that if you’re interested in the “man vs. machine” competition but can watch only one show, watch the third show when a whole game is played.

To read more about the IBM Challenge, check out this online Q&A discussion Jennings did for The Washington Post this morning.

As a lifelong lover of trivia, I’ve long been a fan of “Jeopardy!” Because new episodes of the syndicated game show air weekdays at 3:30 p.m. in the Chicago market, I haven’t been able to keep up with it since I entered the working world, save for a stint of unemployment between j0urnalism jobs a couple years ago. As a result, I completely missed watching Ken Jennings’ 74-game winning streak in 2004.

But the game show’s Valentine’s Day gift to its viewers is about to make up for that. Today marks the beginning of a three-day match between Jennings, Brad Rutter (another successful “Jeopardy!” champion) and an artificial-intelligence computer named Watson. And by quirk of fate (and the volatility of jobs for veteran journalists), I’ll be able to watch all three episodes of “The IBM Challenge” as they are broadcast.

I’m curious if anybody reading this is planning to watch “The IBM Challenge” and, if so, whether you think Watson will beat the human contestants. (The PBS show “NOVA” recently asked three experts on artificial intelligence about Watson, its capabilities, and its implications beyond the game show. You can read what they said here.)