I watched the IBM Jeopardy challenge with more than usual interest because my nephew was one of the scientists involved in developing “Watson “, the IBM computer that is challenging Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. When I first heard about this endeavor , it didn’t make sense that IBM would be devoting so much time and money to a project whose practical applications eluded me . Yesterday’s TV show, however , makes it clear that the success of this program will indeed lead to enormous advances particularly in the field of medical diagnosis . Good to hear.
Because of my nephew’s involvement in the project I felt honor-bound to root for Watson against his human challengers but as the second day’s contest progressed I found myself feeling sorry for Brad and Ken . The first twenty or so questions were all answered by Watson as Brad and Ken were completely shut out . I’m sure they knew some of the answers but their response time wasn’t as fast as the machine’s . This struck me as unfair because no human can react as fast as a machine .
There was a bit of humor on the Daily Double when Watson wagered an odd sum and Alex Trebek quipped ” I won’t even try to guess the reason for that”. Watson continued to steamroll the opposition but , just as things became monotonous , he ( it ? ) fumbled ; unfortunately, Ken and Brad fumbled too and the gap between them remained wide as ever. They got a chance at answering only when Watson guessed wrong on an answer and that didn’t happen more than two or three times.
The Final Jeopardy question , an easy one , provided a surprise. It was ” This city’s largest airport is named for a WWII hero and its second largest is named for a famous WW II battle . ” The correct response was ” What is Chicago?” and both Ken and Brad got it right , nearly doubling their totals . Watson got it wrong and you could have knocked me over with a feather when it responded ” What is Toronto ?!!” Most unexpected , since it had gotten all the difficult ones right only to muff this sitter.Stephen Baker who has written a forthcoming book on the Watson had hinted at Watson’s vulnerability in an Interview aired on NPR when he said “Watson is very capable of losing on any day. It’s a very good player, but a Final Jeopardy can screw it up. A category can totally mystify it sometimes.” I still don’t understand why it should be so .
Despite this stumble , Watson is still comfortably ahead since it wagered less than a thousand dollars on Final Jeopardy and has three times as much as it’s nearest competitor , Brad . However , that mistake holds out some hope of an upset and breathes new life into the contest.
I started out rooting for Watson because my nephew had a part in its development but now , at the end of the show , my sympathies are with the humans. It’s unnerving to see a machine in direct competition with human beings. I had the same feeling a few years ago when Gary Kasparov was battling Deep Blue.So I’ll be rooting for Brad and Ken tomorrow , though without much hope. Nephew , I hope you’ll understand .