Adam Gartenberg's Blog

Business Analytics and Optimization, IBM and Social Marketing

Three Words: Industrial Strength Magnets

Ken Jennings took to the Washington Post yesterday to answer questions from readers on his experience playing against Watson on Jeopardy (link).  His personality really comes through in his responses, and he also sheds some light on the contest and what it's like standing up there on the big stage next to "the creepy insectoid clicking of its mechanical thumb buzzing relentlessly just to my left."

It's worth reading the entire post for Jennings' comments on strategy, karma, Watson's supposed (and to some viewers controversial) "buzzer advantage," who he's rooting for (he and Rutter are both rooting for each other over Watson), and his wish that IBM had used Darrell Hammond's Sean Connery impression as Watson's voice. (Really.  All together now... "Swwwoooords.")

He also answered one of the questions I'd been wondering about - whether the Jeopardy writers prepared specific questions for the Watson match.  As Jennings answers, "To keep the playing field level, Jeopardy used a random selection of game boards that had been pre-written for regular all-human games.  The only concessions to Watson: since it's blind and deaf, all Audio and Video Daily Doubles are out, as are categories that only make sense if Alex verbally explains them."

Here are some more of the answers I found particularly interesting and entertaining.  (And as for the title of the post - this was one reader's suggestion for giving humans back an edge.  Jennings responded with a joke about the water bottles he and Rutter are given during commercial breaks.)

Click through for the full Q&A session:

As Jeopardy devotees know, if you're trying to win on the show, the buzzer is all.  On any given night, nearly all the contestants know nearly all the answers, so it's just a matter of who  masters buzzer rhythm the best.
Watson does have a big advantage in this regard, since it can knock out a microsecond-precise buzz every single time with little or no variation.  Human reflexes can't compete with computer circuits in this regard.  But I wouldn't call this unfair...precise timing just happens to be one thing computers are better at than we humans.  It's not like I think Watson should try buzzing in more erratically just to give homo sapiens a chance.

Believe me, I was enjoying (almost) every second.  Getting beat on the buzzer is frustrating, but are you kidding?  I AM PLAYING A PRIME-TIME GAME SHOW AGAINST A SUPER-ADVANCED ROBOT!  This is the coolest thing I will every do in my life by a factor of a million.  The future is here.

His--er, its--quirky play is half the fun.  I watch video of some of the sparring matches and loved the little goofs.  It got Jamie Foxx and Ludwig van Beethoven confused in one game.  Common mistake!
It just shows how hard it is to do what Watson is doing: answering natural-language questions.  Obviously our brains have all kinds of built-in "double-checks" that we do to make sure the information we're retrieving is correct.  Watson, despite the four years and tens of millions dollars spent, is still much less sophisticated in that regard than our little lump of neurons.

This is very perceptive.  Knowing lots of answers but being a millisecond slow on the buzzer is indeed very frustrating.  To the 149 Ken Jennings losers back in 2004: if you are cheering for Watson right now, I forgive you.
Karma is a bitch.  Unless you can't say "bitch" in the Washington Post, in which case karma is, uh, a fickle strumpet or something.