My Inner Nerd Gets Excited: IBM’s Watson Wins Jeopardy

If you are not into computers, this topic might put you to sleep. 🙂

From Valentine’s Day, Monday February 14, until Wednesday February 16, 2011, two former Jeopardy Champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter battled a computer. And not just any computer. It was a machine hundreds of people from IBM and several prestigious colleges across the country worked on for over four years in order to create a Jeopardy Champion.

In hindsight, it sounds almost ridiculous that a massive corporation listed on the NYSE (as it’s still known of as for now) would devote over $30 million for a chance to have its software, hardware, staff and reputation devoted to one challenge: beat humans on a televised game show.

It seemed simple, Watson was going to perform the same feat as Google did for millions, right? You enter a query and it’ll return the first hit. However, the difference is massive. Watson never accesses the internet. It doesn’t phone home. It is a standalone machine. All the data it needs is stored in its database. Practically the entire Library of Congress is stored inside its hardware. That is millions of books. Millions and millions of words. Google finds data based on page ranking, web sites with the most links which determines popularity, and other unknown algorithms.

Plus, Google doesn’t respond with the nice voice that Watson has.

Yeah, that’s one of the key differences with this machine: Watson speaks! He, er, it asks for the next clue when its turn is up! It even says, Please!

Watching the show for the three days it aired, all I thought of was inquisitive HAL from the movie 2001, the Cyborg from the first Terminator movie (that scared the daylights out of me), the fussy sounding, talking car named Kitt from the television show Nightrider, and the informative, perfunctory computer from Star Trek (the original) and Star Trek: TNG.

Watson was able to understand the near intuitive based quirk of a Jeopardy “answer” in order to submit a “question”. It understands natural (spoken) language and the nature of a riddle. I read that the machine used to take two hours to process a question eventually getting down to under three seconds, because it can learn.

After Watson calculated an answer, he ranked it, indicating a level of self-confidence. If it was over a threshold like 50%, Watson pressed the buzzer. The machine also wagered for the last round – the final Jeopardy question.

It received all questions via text, but in the future Watson will be able to listen and probably see. That’s creepy.

I celebrate the technological advance, but I’m also freaked out by it.

I wasn’t surprised to see HAL, er, Watson win. He spanked both men with $77147, much higher than the combined winnings of $24,000 (Jennings) and $21,600 (Ruttner). However, no one went home empty handed. Watson received $1 million, all of which was donated to charity. The two men split their winnings with charity 50-50: Jennings won $300,000, and Rutter won $200,000. I liked the joke Ken Jennings offered during the final question, “I, for one, welcome our computer overlords.”

I don’t know if I do. However, I do appreciate this technological breakthrough in computing power. In a few years, we may all have our own personal Watson on our smart phones, smart pads, and whatever other technological tools come our way. The danger and the reward in this new technology, is that the more it helps us think, solve problems and delves deeper into complex situations – the less human beings and our intuitions are required.

With one hand technology giveth, and with the other it taketh.

I suppose the only way to stay ahead is to adapt, find the areas where we can offer assistance, be innovative, and continue to do things in areas where technology cannot take our place: creativity and ingenuity. Well, at least for now.

Let’s hope they keep Watson from becoming self-aware, emotional … and away from the military. Especially predator drones. 🙂

Geek Notes: I found out it was mostly programmed in Java and C++. Wow. I had Java and a bit of C++ in school. Those aren’t easy languages to understand. Maybe I’ll take another shot at Java one day.

Update: Video Clip – How Watson Works by Dr. Ferrucci of IBM. Mentions the compter from Star Trek: TNG, which he wanted to emulate.


3 thoughts on “My Inner Nerd Gets Excited: IBM’s Watson Wins Jeopardy”

  1. Thanks G!

    ‘Men Who Stare…’ was okay. If you like Jeff B and George C then it’s worth the watch. That said, I am a big fan of Jeff B! And. Get thee to a movie theater to see ‘True Grit’!! Saw already would see it again. He’s awesome!!!! Oh and surely you’ve seen ‘The Big Lebowski’!?!?

    Yes! The comment I heard was the Watson could/will be used for things like radiology and MRI and routine legal issues!

    Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein and Issac Asimov all wrote about robots in our future. Their work, along with Star Trek, seems strangely predictive.

    Yes, it’s good to talk to you….glad you’re posting again!!! :o)


    GoldenAh: I’ve liked Jeff B. since StarMan. Oh yes, saw Big Lebowski too! 😀 I heard he’s a nice guy – I believe it, he has that Paul Newman vibe. Being a star hasn’t gone to Jeff B’s head, or made him strange, and he’s still married to the same woman after all these years.

    I like stuff by the Coen brothers, the movies are weird, but I find them very funny.

    Well, thanks for that. I wasn’t sure I was going to come back, but I really do enjoy blogging, especially the feedback. 😀

  2. I’m not sure about the ‘Men Who Stare at Goats’ reference. I saw the movie (don’t ask me why), it was about ESP (remote viewing to be specific).

    GoldenAh: Was it worth viewing? I love me some Jeff Bridges. He’s probably the only reason I’d see it, plus Clooney and K. Spacey. I want to see True Grit. 😀

    I have a sense of foreboding in regard to what the Watson means for the future. Computers don’t require an annual salary, health insurance or COLA; whereas human being do. There are a lot of jobs that will be eliminated when the Watson comes online (think help desk, call centers, etc.) Granted the initial shock will hit India and China, but the shock wave will hit the US as well. We may be a bit more insulated since we’ve already lost those jobs; so we’ll take the hit and perhaps suffer a bruise where others will suffer lacerations and broken bones.

    Also you’ve got to love the IBM/Jeopardy media intersection. IBM got free media coverage and lots of people are talking about the Watson. Jeopardy got plenty of media coverage simply because it hosted the Watson.


    GoldenAh: Yup. Yup! It was excellent PR. Brilliant. Jeopardy got their highest ratings in years. IBM totally put themselves back onto the “hot tech” flavor list. As a research computer company, I completely forgot about them. I thought all they did was regular consulting. Can you believe they have over 350,000 employees worldwide? I thought they had outsourced / eliminated ALL of their US operations and staff to the rest of the world. I was blown away that they were even still in New York State. I remember when they were hemorrhaging employees years ago.

    But like you said, there aren’t too many jobs to get rid of over here. We’ve been pared to the bone. The US has too many underemployed / unemployed folks now, and it seems to keep growing. Scary times.

    And you’re right, this Watson thing is different. I know IBM still has some glitches to work out, but watching the performance of Watson on Jeopardy, I was like, “Oh sheeeeit.” I think of how it is when we call some help desks we gotta deal with the “dumb” computerized answering service. Watson is like 10 levels above that. And IBM is talking about using it to help diagnose illnesses! That shows you how advanced this thing is!

    I love sci-fi, but it freaks me out how fast some of it comes true.

    Nice to hear from you, Southland Diva. 😀

  3. I’m thinking though…isn’t this what the government does with counterintelligence? That movie about the CIA experiment with people hypnotizing goats or something…can’t think of the title off the top of my head….

    GoldenAh: Ah, it was Men Who Stare at Goats with George Clooney. I didn’t see the film, so I’m not sure of the details. Supposedly, they were tapping their inner third eye or something? 🙂

    To be honest, I’ve always assumed the government already had a superb artificial intelligence Waston-like computer in usage. I know I’ve watched too many Hollywood flicks and TV films. I thought all they needed to do was input some names or pictures and bam! they get all the answers they needed. Maybe not. ‘Cause then we wouldn’t have the TSA groping people at airports around the country. 😀

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