Watson Throttling Jeopardy Dorks.


Colors that Rhyme With Urple for 200.


I was excited for this man vs. machine Jeopardy battle and then I almost completely missed it.  If it hadn’t been for a headline I saw on the internet machine, I wouldn’t have been tuning in on Tuesday night for round two of a 3-day battle.  The first of two games was stretched over two days so that IBM could get their share of air time.  The show did feel like a bit like a long IBM commercial, but it’s Jeopardy, not some movie you paid 12 bucks to see, so it’s not the end of the world.  Listening to the IBM people was pretty interesting as well, because I can’t fathom the technology and ingenuity it would take to make this computer.  I still don’t really understand how a telephone works.  I don’t want to try to figure out how computers do anything, let alone dominate trivia shows.

The game itself probably didn’t live up to expectations.  The problem is, the computer (Watson) is just too good with buzzing in for an answer.  The only thing that slows its ringing in is if it has some doubt about the answer it will give. This gives the humans (Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter) time to slip in an occasional answer.  The show today, I’d say Watson rang in first at least 90% of the time.  And, it was almost always correct.  I’d say the most interesting thing about Watson is that you can see its top-3 answers for the questions with weighted confidences.  The first choice is usually correct and has a confidence in the 95% range.  The other choices are often odd answers with very low confidence.  This is because the hardest thing for Watson to do, is decipher the question.  Those tricky Jeopardy punsters.

This isn’t really a fair fight, and I felt a little badly for Jennings and Rutter.  Although, not really for Ken Jennings.  I think he was a little bit of a Jeopardy creation.  Obviously, the guy is very good, but his streak of wins was uncommonly lucky.  I don’t want to say there was foul play, but Jeopardy could certainly manage the outcome a bit once the streak was building and they started getting incredible amounts of attention.  If you watch Jeopardy, you know that not all contestants are made equal, and I wonder if Ken got more than his share of B-teamers during his run?  Just a little conspiracy theory.  When Jennings is up against other dominant players, like Rutter, he is at-best on their level, and probably in the case of Rutter, just slightly below.  I guess it’s like Joe-D’s streak, just because he hit in 56 straight, doesn’t mean he’s the best hitter who ever lived.

Getting back to it not being a fair fight, high level Jeopardy is all about ringing in, and the human participants don’t have much of a chance, so they sit there and look like idiots while Watson streaks to a huge lead.  For the purposes of the game, they’ve really just proven that the computer has faster reflexes.  Which is still incredibly impressive.  I can’t overstate how cool the computer is.   I’m someone who gets excited when a calculator spits out a correct answer.  This is unbelievable.  My main complaint with Watson is that if I had to get an answer right, one answer, to a question that wasn’t necessarily impossible, I’d still take Jennings or Rutter over the machine.

When Watson misses, it misses big.  Like in Final Jeopardy, a lay-up of a question about U.S. Cities produced the answer, “Toronto” from Watson.  Luckily, the computer only risked about 1,000 dollars and maintained its huge lead, but on the one of the easiest questions all night Watson wasn’t even in the ballpark.  So, the practical application of this machine may still be far off.  Also, why can’t we make any advances in computerized speech?  This thing sounds like the computer in War Games.  If I was at IBM, I’d be a little embarrassed.

The match-up ends tomorrow night with the 2nd and final game.  With the cumulative scoring, and Watson’s complete lack of greed and off the charts buzzer skills, I don’t see how it can be beaten.  If you didn’t catch it in action though, you should definitely give it a peek.  At the very least Jennings may squirt a few tears, he was looking pretty whiny during Double Jeopardy.


16 thoughts on “Watson Throttling Jeopardy Dorks.

  1. If you’re the humans, shouldn’t you just be buzzing in on every “low dollar” question first with the assumption you’ll have a decent shot at it? I know it’s not correct “Jeopardy strategery”, but at this point its their only shot i assume.

  2. I thought of that last night, and yet I’m not sure that isn’t what they are trying to do and they still don’t get in ahead of Watson.

  3. My understanding was that for most jeopardy questions, everyone knows the answer and everyone is trying to buzz in as soon as Alex finishes the question. As I understand it, there is a light that turns on when Alex finishes reading the question. If you buzz in before that light turns on, you get penalized one second or something and your buzzer is deactivated; you would only get to ring in on that question if teh other two players didn’t buzz in at all. The whole game is trying to time your buzzer to be the first one to ring in after the light goes on.

    In other words, I suspect that is exactly what everyone is trying to do. I wonder how they hook up the computer to the light system. The computer by definition would be faster at buzzing in if it is somehow automatically hooked up to that system. A human has to see the light and then press the buzzer.

  4. The whole thing sounds like BS to me. When it’s mano e mano, the humans have the same amount of time to read/hear the question, but when it’s a computer they have to be inputting the question into the computer through the click of a button, right? It would seem that if the question is input as soon as it appears on screen the computer has more time to process than a human reading it realtime.

    • They said the question is fed to the computer electronically, but they didnt explain if it was revealed to him slowly (as if it had to actually read it) or given to him all at once. Im sure they could set up all sorts of delays to make it more fair, but thats not really the point. The point is that the computer is able to decipher the questions, which are not straight forward like a typical internet search, and find the answer in an amazingly short time. They wouldnt put the thing on here if it was just going to get smoked. Obviously it is going to win.

  5. I have always wondered about how the timing of the buzzer works. Are you permitted to buzz in as soon as Alex begins reading the question, or must you wait until the very second when he finishes the last word? Seems like both options could be fair, depending on how you look at it. However, I remember that during Jennings run, there was a lot made of how good he was with the buzzer. In fact, i heard that they changed the rules to give contestants more time to practice with the buzzers before the game started. This suggests to me that there is a time during which you cannot buzz in, and then its a race to hit it at just the right moment. This sort of makes sense when you see people firing away at the buzzer over and over again. Otherwise, you would only need to hit it once and hope you were first.

    Toronto was hilarious. How can you dominate a category like hedgehog podge and then not get a lay up like US cities. I honestly think i could have gotten that question right in a 10 second google search. Unfortunately, testing that theory now is impossible because the first 10 results are about Jeapardy and how Watson blew it.

    That makes me think of a cool internet function that should exist if it already doesnt. Being able to search Google as it existed on a certain date could be very helpful in certain situations.

  6. For some reason i remember there being a point in Jeopardy where you could buzz in while trebek was talking, but he wouldn’t then finish the question? Or was this another game show?

    Total side note, but can SNL please bring back celebrity jeopardy?

  7. I think you are thinking of another show. I can almost picture it, but can’t quite place it.

    I don’t think it could be Jeopardy, because even if Alex wasn’t done reading, the question still comes up on the screen, so the contestant could speed read it on their own.

  8. I think you may be thinking of the Buzz-in question on Family Feud.

    Some questions that I’d like Watson to answer:

    -Why did Wendy’s change their french fries?
    -Why is Buddy so bad at fantasy football?
    -Is it possible to take a dump without requiring a wipe?
    -Can this question not be answered?

  9. Feisty effort by Jennings today. If he’d gotten a Daily Double in the 2nd round, he might have gotten a sniff.

    I was rooting against Watson pretty hard. Still think it’s that voice.

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