Ken Jennings’ Puny Human Brain 

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

Ken Jennings, who won a record 74 straight Jeopardy games in 2004, has just finished competing against IBM’s Watson (along with Brad Rutter, another Jeopardy phenom). He and Rutter gave it their all, but they ultimately got trounced. Now that the shows have aired, Jennings has an interesting piece on the experience over at Slate.

When the tournament began, I joked that they’d given Watson home-field advantage, as the taping took place in New York. It turns out there was truth to this:

But at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Lab, an Eero Saarinen-designed fortress in the snowy wilds of New York’s Westchester County, where the shows taped last month, I wasn’t the hero at all. I was the villain.

This was to be an away game for humanity, I realized as I walked onto the slightly-smaller-than-regulation Jeopardy! set that had been mocked up in the building’s main auditorium…The stands were full of hopeful IBM programmers and executives, whispering excitedly and pumping their fists every time their digital darling nailed a question. A Watson loss would be invigorating for Luddites and computer-phobes everywhere, but bad news for IBM shareholders.

In addition to the audience, there were definitely some issues with this exhibition, including buzzer speed (Watson consistently buzzed in just ahead of the human contestants) and question type (to accommodate the deaf and blind Watson, no audio or video clues were used). Given a chance to answer all 122 questions from the three day, two game tournament, I think the humans may well have eked out a victory. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Watson is a very impressive accomplishment.


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