Brad Rutter – the man who has won more money than any other Jeopardy! Champion, a whopping $3.25 million, is currently tied at $5000 at the end of the first round with the IBM Supercomputer Watson. Ken Jennings, the longest running champion – 74 consecutive wins is in second place with $2000 and there are two more days to go.
Monday, February 14, 2010, viewers of the TV show Jeopardy tuned in to watch the IBM Challenge where a Supercomputer named after IBM founder Thomas Watson plays against former Jeopardy! champions. The bulk of the program was taken up explaining most of what went into getting Watson ready for this so, in a break with traditional timing, Jeopardy’s first night finished only the first round of a regular game.
Just like regular, human contestants, Watson must rely only on what it “knows”. It is not connected to the Internet so it does not have an unfair advantage over its human competition. Watson uses several algorithms to crunch through possible answers to come up with the “most likely” answer. Watson has a “confidence threshold” to gauge if the answers are correct. If the possible answers do not exceed that threshold, then Watson does not ring in. In the first round, Watson’s answers ALL exceeded the threshold – even if they were wrong.
It was also interesting to see that Watson pretty much ran the board, however it did not do it in standard clear a category fashion, rather, it was literally “all over the board” even managing to land the only Daily Double in the round.
As play progressed, at one time Watson had actually gathered a $5800 lead, before incorrectly answering three questions and being beat out on two others. Watson’s first misstep was to repeat an answer given by Jennings.
In the Name the Decade category, Jennings and Watson both incorrectly answered What is the 1920s to the clue “The invention of the crossword puzzle and the Oreo cookie”. Rutter correctly answered the 1910s. Host Alex Trebek admonished Watson by saying, “No. Ken already said that.”
Watson’s second mistake came when answering “It was the anatomical oddity of US gymnast George Eyser who won a gold medal on the parallel bars in 1904." Watson’s answer was “What is leg?” The correct answer was “What is missing a leg?”
Watson’s third came when giving the wrong Latin word for “terminal”
Watson, of course cannot hear or see or even acknowledge that anyone else is in the room. But it can press the buzzer to ring in with an answer, it has a synthesized male voice and has a stage presence. The actual Watson is in a room next door to the studio where the challenge is being played and is cooled with several refrigerators. On stage is an avatar that acts as a display to show when Watson is processing its answer.
The idea of a question/answer system has been around for years; however, the concept of Watson began at IBM Research Labs in 2006 with researchers wanting to know if they could parse the clues and analyze the nuances of the English language to answer questions.
The future applications of a system such as Watson are vague at best in the present. During one “informational segment” of the show, an IBM researched asked, “Is this the computer from the Enterprise? Not yet.” But the possibility is there. Perhaps the possibility to step forward into the realm of the M-5 from Star Trek The Ultimate Computer will be possible.
Then there is the darker side of computing…as represented by HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ironically, there were all kinds of rumors when Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001 that HAL’s name was derived from the letters IBM stepped down one letter. Clarke denied that rumor repeatedly claiming HAL stood for Heuristic and Algorithmic Language. But with the rumor in mind and IBM developing a computer system much like HAL, one has to wonder if maybe IBM didn’t decide to capitalize on an urban legend.
Are we, in fact, looking at the precursor to HAL? Or the Enterprise computer? Or even the M-5? The possibilities are endless in terms of what man can do with computers. But is it possible that these Supercomputers can become self-aware? If that were to happen, what would be the fate of mankind? Would we find a way to develop faster-than-light drives or would we become useless pods of energy trapped in a global computer system? There is some comfort in the truth that a computer is only as smart as the person programming it…so long as the programmer doesn’t have some personal agenda to push.
The creation of Watson proves once again that technology continues to remain the undiscovered country.