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IBM’s Watson, not so elementary

- February 22nd, 2011

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Much to the joy of many geeks and scientists and probably investors, IBM’s supercomputer Watson, cleaned-up on the latest Jeopardy! challenge, obliterating the 2 most renowned players, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, to claim the $1 million-dollar charity-bound prize and bragging rights to the title of world’s best. But with the incredible advancements in computing technology and artificial intelligence, the outcome was elementary, or was it?

This was Jeopardy! A quiz show that often stretches one’s imagination. It’s where players know that categories and clues can be full of quirks, puns, obscurities, plays on words, pop-culture and of course red-herrings, which may pose a challenge to a logic processing machine. This wasn’t, “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader”, where the questions and answers were purely academic.

Success in Jeopardy! is not always about knowing the right answer (in the form of a question), it’s about the strategy; how you play the game, how you wager those Daily Doubles and of course a bit of luck.

Ideal Setting

And that’s why the Jeopardy! platform would be a perfect setting to set Man vs. Machine. According to Dr. David Ferrucci, Principal Investigator, DeepQA/Watson project which built Watson, “Jeopardy provides a compelling and notable way to drive and measure the technology of open domain questions and answers.”

Watson was up against the best. Jennings, who I secretly hoped would take the crown, won a record 74 Jeopardy matches and Rutter who amassed record winnings of over $3 million were certainly the best and most obvious choices of men to compete against the machine.

Unfair Advantage?

Admittedly, I missed the first round, but tuning into Day 2, it appeared that a slaughter was inevitable. Watson just kept ripping through the clues, knocking them off the board one by one with ease.

Was this going to be the norm all through to the end of Day 3?

Perhaps Watson had an unfair advantage. After all, it was machine with a vast database and whose reaction time is likely measured nanoseconds rather than milliseconds.


Watson,  is no netbook. On television, it was represented by a single avatar, occupying the space of a single contestant, but it actually consists of some fairly sophisticated technology powered by 8-core IBM POWER7 processors, through over 90 servers and hundreds of custom algorithms.

So is Watson another Deep Blue, the computer that in 1997 defeated Garry Kasparov, a former Soviet chess grandmaster?

According to IBM’s CEO & Chairman, Sam Palmisano, in an IBM promo video, Watson is not unlike Deep Blue, in that it represents a major leap in the capacity of information technology systems and enhanced decision-making despite dawning complexity.

“Watson illustrates the ability of a computer to do something more challenging than chess and to take human to computer communication to new levels.”

But just sitting there watching the 2 humanoids looking dumbfounded for 30 minutes, would certainly not make for good television. However, when Watson gave the answer of “Toronto ?????”, with the Final Jeopardy category of U.S. Cities, I thought there was still hope heading into Day 3 for the carbon-based life forms.

The final chapter was not yet written as Jennings and Rutter rallied back and forth increasing their winnings, often just narrowly squeezing out Watson. But while it was evident that Watson may not have known about the USA Today price hike from $0.25 to $1.00 in 2008 , it missed out on clues that could have been be deciphered with a simple Google query.

So as it turns out, Watson is certainly no Android; no Lt. Commander Data, but then again, this isn’t Star Trek: The Next Generation either.

Watson Gets a Text

According to a blog post by IBM Researcher Dr. David Gondek, it turns out that Watson cannot see or hear anything. He writes that as Game Show host Alex Trebek unveils a clue, Watson receives a text via TCP/IP in essence at the same time the others see it. Then, at the moment Trebek finishes reading it a human operator turns on the buzzer enable light.

Watson assesses the clue and if the confidence level is high Watson will “chime-in” by sending a signal to a mechanical thumb mounted to a buzzer just like that of Jennings and Rutter. The button must actually be pushed. If successful, Watson converts his digital response to analogue audio to deliver the answer.

This is where experienced Jeopardy players gain an advantage. They can chime in as soon as the clue is unveiled whether or not they know the answer in order to lockout their opponents. Jennings is certainly notorious for using this technique, not to mention being sometimes obvious in a smug way as he slowly reveals his answer. This would explain how he could outsmart Watson despite its high confidence level on a given question.

Near the end of Day 3, Jennings and Watson were only a few thousand dollars apart, but by then, Watson had a huge cumulative total advantage and took the crown.


Jeopardy Host and Contestants –  (l. to r.) Brad Rutter, Alex Trebek, Ken Jennings

It turned out to be good television after all and the outcome not so elementary. And while this was just a game, charities did benefit to the tune of over a million dollars. But the real future lies in what innovations like Watson can do for the benefit of mankind.

Interestingly, Watson’s namesake is not derived from a character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but rather from IBM’s founder Thomas J. Watson, Sr.

all photos courtesy, IBM.

Greg Gazin is the Real Canadian Gadget Guy.

Follow me on Twitter @gadgetgreg

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