Man v. Machine in a Historic 3-Day Jeopardy Match

Man v. Machine in a Historic 3-Day Jeopardy Match

Mike Tyson
Feb 16, 2011

Over the past two days the human race has been pitted against a supercomputer in a match-up that typically exists in a science fiction fantasy. Watson, a computer created by IBM (named after its founder), finds itself (himself?) in a unique challenge that characterizes the inquisitive and progressive nature of our era. The two Jeopardy champions Brad Rutter (the highest-grossing contestant on Jeopardy) and Ken Jennings (the longest winning streak) have been competing admirably against this powerful computer for the past two days and tonight marks the final game to decide whether or not the computer can trump the human mind.

Watson is a supercomputer which is housed in a refrigerated room off-stage. The symbol of Watson's presence is a vertically oriented LCD screen which features a specially designed "avatar" as well as an electronic pump which presses the Jeopardy remote to signal an answer. The avatar is color coded to demonstrate when Watson is confident of an answer or when it gets one wrong. Additionally, the avatar pulses with kinetic lines to symbolize Watson's processing power. So what about the specs? Watson is comprised of 90 IBM Power 750 servers featuring 16 Terabytes of memory and an astonishing 2,880 processing core running Linux! The price tag of this sucker? Although not officially revealed by IBM it is estimated to cost between $1 and $2 billion. Watson does not hear nor see so all questions must be fed to it electronically. Additionally, for the sake of fairness, it is not able to be connected to the internet while competing. Instead, engineers downloaded massive quantities of information onto its servers such as the entire Encyclopedia Britannica or every New York Times article ever written.


Over the past two nights Watson has pulled out an impressive lead against the humans, ending the second day with a winning total of $36,881 to the next highest player, Brad's, $5,400. Whether or not this is the final nail in the human's coffin remains to be seen but it is an impressive feat to be sure. Not everything, however, is all peachy-keen for Watson after two particularly embarrassing blunders which a grade-schooler could have easily avoided. The first night Watson buzzed in with an incorrect answer of "what is the 1920s" immediately after Ken responded with the same incorrect answer. Additionally, on Tuesday night Watson answered a question asking for a US city with "Toronto". IBM responded to this embarrassing flub by illustrating the way in which Watson crunches his data to generate an answer:

"David Ferrucci, the manager of the Watson project at IBM Research, explained during a viewing of the show on Monday morning that several of things probably confused Watson. First, the category names on Jeopardy! are tricky. The answers often do not exactly fit the category. Watson, in his training phase, learned that categories only weakly suggest the kind of answer that is expected, and, therefore, the machine downgrades their significance. The way the language was parsed provided an advantage for the humans and a disadvantage for Watson, as well. "What US city" wasn't in the question. If it had been, Watson would have given US cities much more weight as it searched for the answer. Adding to the confusion for Watson, there are cities named Toronto in the United States and the Toronto in Canada has an American League baseball team. It probably picked up those facts from the written material it has digested. Also, the machine didn't find much evidence to connect either city's airport to World War II. (Chicago was a very close second on Watson's list of possible answers.) So this is just one of those situations that's a snap for a reasonably knowledgeable human but a true brain teaser for the machine."

So what happens when it's all said and done? Well, the winner receives a prize of $1 million dollars which ain't too shabby. Both human contestants pledge to donate half their winnings to charity while IBM offered the entire enchilada (because really, $1 mil is chump change when you're competing with a contestant that could have set you back $2 billion). But aside from the prizes, the potential that Watson possesses is astonishing. Not only can Watson interpret something as infinitely complex as language, but it can analyze an enormous amount of data,generate an answer in seconds, and articulate it back. And not only that, it also designates a level of confidence with its answer. Is artificial intelligence finally on par with the human mind? Absolutely not. Despite the large fortune and years of manpower put behind Watson, it still fails at answering even the most simple questions for a human brain to comprehend. Over the course of these two days, many jokes have been made referring to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey or Skynet (from the Terminator series). Although Watson becomes more intelligent with every answer he gives, it isn't very likely it'll ever become self-aware and begin a revolt on humankind. One thing that stands out to us, however, is the phenomenal power of the human mind. Whether or not Watson winds up winning Jeopardy has little relevance. What is most incredible about this story is not only the human ingenuity and intelligence that has come together to craft such a machine, but the awesome power of the human mind by its sheer nature. Even a billion dollar high powered computer which commands the space of an entire room seems to falter at some of the most trivial and easy problems for the human brain to analyze. There is no doubt this technology is impressive, but it is also nice to step back and think about our own progress and power that is intrinsically related to our natural development and species as a whole.

For more information on Watson and the match, check out IBM's official website.

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