If This Is Watson, Then What Is Sherlock Like?

Posted: February 17, 2011 in Editorial

In nearly 30 years of prime time programming, Jeopardy has rarely deviated from its standard, three-round quiz show format. To incorporate diversity, the nature of its guests has been shuffled occasionally; college kids, celebrities and schoolchildren have all taken part in specially-themed contests. Before this week, however, Alex Trebek and co. had never seen a guest like Watson, an IBM computer designed specifically to compete on the show. The four-episode series, which pitted Watson against two very smart human participants, revolutionized the public perception of artificially intelligent machines – and, in the process, provided audiences with some mesmerizing television.

Watson’s Jeopardy appearance is a long time in the making. The program, named for IBM founder Thomas Watson, has been in development for the past three years. The goal, according to technicians, was to create the world’s most advanced “question answering machine.” In order to achieve this, researchers knew they must find a way to first equip Watson with a capacity  for comprehending questions expressed in common vernacular – or “natural language” – and then also enable “him” to respond with both precision and lightning-fast dexterity. In layman’s terms, Watson can do much more than a typical search engine, which is programmed to operatically shuffle through coded data to retrieve pages and keywords that match a requested topic. He can, essentially, understand what is being asked, and use his 80-terabyte sized memory to quickly determine a proper answer. Even for the most advanced artificial intelligence programs, Watson’s capabilities are unprecedented. Judging by this extraordinary machine’s performance on Jeopardy, it is safe to say the project was a successful one.

Between Sunday and Wednesday of this week, Watson competed against Jeopardy’s two winningest champions. Brad Rutter, the show’s largest all-time money earner, walked away with a cool $3.2 million in 2008 after winning 20 games. Ken Jennings set the record for most consecutive appearances at 74 in 2003, pocketing $2.6 million and becoming a household name in the process. As smart as both of these men have historically proven themselves to be, they were simply no match for their electronic counterpart. Question after question, Watson rang in before his competitors even had a chance to squeeze their buzzers, and provided perfect answers with a smooth, auto-tuned voice. The machine proved adeptly knowledgeable in a variety of topics, including world geography, literature and desserts, among others. So dominant was this non-human contestant that his two-day total – $77,147 – was more than three times that of runner-up Jennings, who earned $24,000. Rutter placed third, grossing $21,600 in two days.

Of course, Watson’s performance was not perfect. In fact, there were several instances in which he faltered. The machine had a particularly rough go with categories that contained elements of ‘play-on-words’ style. For example, ‘ALSO ON THE COMPUTER’ contained clues about a variety of items that share names with common keyboard buttons; asking for a type of woman’s dress that clings to the female figure (correct response: shift), Watson answered ‘what is a chamise?’ Another area that proved troublesome for him was rapid-fire questions that provided little information, and required a more intuitive response from players. ‘ACTORS WHO DIRECT’ was one such category; giving only film titles in the clues, Watson did not ring in at all during these five questions. Then, infamously, the first Final Jeopardy round caught everyone – especially the electronic contestant – by surprise. The question, in the category of ‘US CITIES,’ provided a clue about airports. The answer was ‘Chicago,’ but Watson’s written response was ‘What is Toronto????’ So confused was the computer by the clue that he could not even come up with an American city; luckily, he only wagered $947, and easily won $35,734 for the day.

Is Watson a sign of things to come…?

Of course, Watson’s performance was not perfect. In fact, there were several instances in which he faltered. The machine had a particularly rough go with categories that contained elements of ‘play-on-words’ style. For example, ‘ALSO ON THE COMPUTER’ contained clues about a variety of items that share names with common keyboard buttons; asking for a type of woman’s dress that clings to the female figure (correct response: shift), Watson answered ‘what is a chamise?’ Another area that proved troublesome for him was rapid-fire questions that provided little information, and required a more intuitive response from players. ‘ACTORS WHO DIRECT’ was one such category; giving only film titles in the clues, Watson did not ring in at all during these five questions. Then, infamously, the first Final Jeopardy round caught everyone – especially the electronic contestant – by surprise. The question, in the category of ‘US CITIES,’ provided a clue about airports. The answer was ‘Chicago,’ but Watson’s written response was ‘What is Toronto????’ So confused was the computer by the clue that he could not even come up with an American city; luckily, he only wagered $947, and easily won $35,734 for the day.

For a machine, Watson proved to be quite an entertaining presence, wagering humorously precise amounts during Daily Doubles and slightly mispronouncing common words due to his limited phonetic abilities. He was even polite, often adding ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to his responses. Watson – or at least, his programmers – also proved to be more charitable than the competition; all of the computer’s first-place $1 million winnings will be divided evenly between Worldvision and World Community Grid, whereas only half Jennings’ and Rutter’s respective second and third place monies will go to charity. Which is not to say the human contestants were snide about losing; in the final round of play, Jennings added ‘I for one welcome our new computer overlords,’ to his answer.

Will Watson cure cancer, solve the financial crisis or eradicate world hunger? No, probably not, but I’ll be damned if his performance on Jeopardy isn’t solid proof of our generation’s fascinating technological empowerment. In cases like Watson’s, you don’t have to be a science fiction nerd to realize that we inhabit an amazing, seemingly limitless world.

Comments
  1. Mitch knows says:

    People still watch Jeopardy? hmm you learn something everyday.

  2. [...] If This Is Watson, Then What Is Sherlock Like? « Stew! So confused was the computer by the clue that he could not even come up with an American city; luckily he only wagered $947, and easily won $35734 for the day. Is Watson a sign of things to come. For a machine, Watson proved to be . [...]

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