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Man Vs. Machine: Barely a Contest

Posted on the 17 February 2011 by Conroy @conroyandtheman
by Conroy

Man vs. Machine: Barely a Contest

Watson "between" Rutter and Jennings

Last night I watched glumly as Watson, IBM's custom-built supercomputer, completed a comprehensive three-day (and two game) victory over top human champions on the game show "Jeopardy!". Watson proved to be quicker than Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, perhaps Jeopardy!'s two greatest champions. Jennings rose to national prominence several years ago when he went on a 74-game winning streak and amassed well over $2 million in prize money. Rutter, first competed on the show when contestants were only allowed to win five games consecutively. Since then, however, he has won three of Jeopardy!'s top tournaments (including defeating Ken Jennings) and amassed $3.5 million in prize money, the most of any competitor in the show's history. Except for a few brief flurries, these accomplished players were no match for Watson.

Man vs. Machine: Barely a Contest

The real Watson

For anyone watching the show, we saw Watson as an upended flat screen monitor with a modified and constantly changing IBM logo display, "standing" behind the lectern between Rutter and Jennings (see picture above). His name was neatly printed (or typed as we were to interpret) on the name panel in front of the lectern. When Watson answered or chose a question we heard a soft, calm human voice. The impression was of a competitor on stage, like his two human opponents. This was of course not the real situation. As Alex Trebek demonstrated during the first show, Watson is a massive series of inter-connected servers as powerful as thousands of individual computers. Watson is as large as a small apartment and is stored in a specially cooled room. The show was taped at IBM's lab in Yorktown Heights, New York. The Watson on stage was an avatar, deaf and blind. When the questions were read on-stage the real Watson was simultaneously fed a text file of the question (he didn't hear Alex talk or read the question screen like you or I do at home). Watson took the text information and ran numerous concurrent algorithms through his vast store of knowledge to develop potential answers, assigning a confidence to each. When the confidence value was high enough, the computer would attempt to answer. Watson buzzed in using a joystick buzzer like the human contestants.
As you probably gathered, I was rooting for the humans. I grew up competing on Academic Teams and participating in various tournaments, so I can see myself in the men on stage. I also would like to think that humans can do things that machines can't. The reality is that this competition, while fun to watch and a great advertisement/demonstration for IBM doesn't prove all that much about quiz shows. In general, the questions were not too difficult and I have a suspicion that all three competitors were buzzing at about the same time, Watson's timing was just better. This isn't surprising, the programming probably allowed the machine to buzz at the exact earliest moment allowed (buzz too early and you're locked out from answering) - far more precisely than a human can react. I have sense, a very strong sense, that if you asked these questions of the three competitors separately you would see a similar number of correct answers and a similar cumulative time to answer (in fact the humans may have gotten a few more answers right). I like that Watson got several questions wrong, don't we all, and his eccentric wagering for "Daily Doubles" and "Final Jeopardy!" had to be a quirk (intended or not) of his programming. There was a funny moment on the first day when Watson repeated an wrong answer provided by Ken Jennings; Alex gently chided the machine.

Man vs. Machine: Barely a Contest

Even Arcade Fire sings despairingly about Deep Blue

Watching over the three days I felt similar to how I did when Deep Blue, another IBM invention, defeated chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov in 1997. Through the cost of millions of dollars and years of effort IBM programmers had beaten the best that humanity could offer in a specific intellectual activity. (Note that of the earlier project, Kasparov remains strongly skeptical of Deep Blue's performance.) From then on humans would continue to lose in ever more lopsided contests (though amazingly, top human chess players can still beat machines in individual matches). I have a feeling that a future Watson will be able to answer almost any trivia question and do so almost immediately. I would be really impressed if that computer could listen to the question and read the files using some form of electronic ear and eye, that would make it a lot more "human-like". I still see that as a ways away.
Despite my lament for yet another human activity now bettered by computer (kind-of), this entire enterprise is a testament to the power of computing and our advancing programming abilities. I laud IBM for spending time and money on these types of endeavors. It's critical that we as humans push the bounds of our technology and do so in a way that can excite our imagination. I have no doubt that IBM's programmers were deeply motivated to "win" on Jeopardy!, in a way that they may not have been on a more mundane and less public project. I hope we can take the abilities of Watson and apply them to everyday uses. The capability of understanding "natural language" is a great step in computing. Applications could range from better information sorting, telephone voice response programs that can actually provide real help, and even more accurate and precise responses to specific internet search engine queries. Here are some thoughts from IBM on the subject.
The most impressive aspect of Watson was not the results of it's performance, but it's complete independence from human support during the show (albeit in a highly controlled environment). Something Deep Blue's creators could not boast. Hopefully that means practical applications for this technology are in our near future.

Man vs. Machine: Barely a Contest

Andy's anger erupts against Watson

By the way, Watson has seeped into the national culture, check out this funny bit from Monday's Conan show. The writers got out natural human angst about "smart" computers right on the money.

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