'Jeopardy!' Man vs. Machine: Who (or What) Should You Root For?

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Associated Press


There will be people channel-surfing this week who will come across Jeopardy! and wonder why Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the best-known champions in the show's history, are vying with a third contestant who which has a screensaver for a face, goes by the name of Watson and has a voice that will remind people of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Some will be unfamiliar with the back story of Watson, an IBM supercomputer specifically designed to compete on Jeopardy! And what they might observe—a machine making mincemeat of mankind's best answer-and-question contestants—could be discomfiting. If they stop and watch, who (or what) will they root for? And will their preference change as the story of Watson—specifically, its potential benefit to mankind as a tool for sifting through massive amounts of data—is explained to them? And will that change happen in the corny get-to-know-you segment that Alex Trebek has with each contestant?

"Watson, we understand you represent the future of data management, analytics, and systems design. We understand the IBM team provided you with millions of documents, including dictionaries, encyclopedias and other reference material that you could use to build your knowledge. And rather than relying on a single algorithm, you use thousands of algorithms simultaneously to understand the question being asked and find the correct path to the answer. Given all that, what's your idea of the perfect date? Oops, not fast enough."

We can make light of the man vs. machine dynamic at play here, but Watson is not simply a gimmick meant to entertain. It is a unique natural language processing computer that employs deep analytics and machine learning capabilities to answer questions in real time—quick enough to click in and answer Jeopardy! questions against the likes of Jennings and Rutter.

The potential applications extend beyond medicine to the troubleshooting of complex machines, including the space shuttle, says John E. Kelley III, IBM's director of research. In one of several YouTube videos released in conjunction with the Jeopardy! IBM Challenge, Kelley said, "We are trying to produce a deep question-and-answering machine which will change the way people interact with computers and machines. We are going to revolutionize many, many fields."

Among those fields is customer service, as computers like Watson could obviate the need for certain customer service representatives. Given that, a person watching this three-day contest would not be wrong to say, "That computer might take my job someday."

IBM wanted to feature Watson on Jeopardy! because the show demands the two central elements of successful question and answering: the need to be both confident and timely in your responses.

"Jeopardy! really represents natural language," says Harry Friedman, executive producer of the game show. "You have to understand the English language and all the nuances and all the regionalisms and the slang and the shorthand to play the game, to get the clues. It's not just a piece of information (that you're after)."

Watson—named after IBM's founder, Thomas Watson—is the size of several large refrigerators and runs on a Power7 microprocessor. It will be represented on stage by a computer screen featuring a swirling globe avatar, despite many people's preference for a Sean Connery-lookalike. (Or maybe that's just our preference.) Watson will not get angry and frustrated if it's incorrect with responses. And it will not guess wildly. And it probably won't pull a Cliff Clavin and bet it all on Final Jeopardy! if victory is already assured. In short, it probably won't remind you of yourself.

Watson beat Jennings and Rutter in a practice round in January, reportedly answering half of the questions without making a single mistake. That's a marked improvement over its early forays against mock Jeopardy! contests. When Watson started competing against IBM employees in 2007, it wasn't uncommon for the computer to give nonsensical responses. For instance, when the answer to an I Love Lucy clue was "It was Ricky's signature tune and later the name of his club," Watson responded, "What is song?"

Machine-hating humans probably shouldn't hold their breath waiting for Watson to stumble like this during the IBM Challenge. Sure, the computer has its weaknesses—for instance, it's reportedly not good at puns—but it still represents the cutting edge of computer question-and-answer technology. And even if it loses to Jennings and Rutter, it still might swipe your job in the near future. And probably mine.

Come to think of it...go KenJen?

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Cameron Martin is a freelance writer and contributor to the New York Times, the Daily Beast, Yahoo! Sports, and Barnes & Noble Review.

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