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.


Dear Pepsico,

Please note: I did send this note, via email.

I just heard an ad for your “Refresh Project” and the music of John Mayer, “Waiting.” Is your advocacy also endorsing the words of a racist / sexist bigot? Is David Duke a part of your “Refresh Project” as well?

You hypocrites can drop Tiger Woods, but you let a racist / sexist bigot continue to be a part of your “Refresh” campaign.

I see that as long as you have an overriding phony “good image” to push at us minorities you will keep playing the music of this racist / sexist bigot and tell us that everything is fine.

As far as I am concerned that is not good enough. If he had said offensive things about Jews, you people would not be playing his music, or using any product tie-ins with this man.

Your own racist / sexist hypocritical double-standards are noted and not appreciated. Words wound and money will not wipe the slate clean here. Actions speak louder than words.

I don’t want to hear that John Mayer is endorsed by you people. Drop him from your campaign now.

How about finding some decent people to push your products to the young and sensitive people of the world instead of an ugly racist / sexist spouting bigot?

You people need to try better next time.

Also, don’t send me any corporate-speak blather about how you’re doing okay in spite of having an offensive racist and sexist bigot to tie-in market your products with.

It will never pass the smell test.

Please note: I did send this note, via email.


I realize that a massive junk-food tax, on potato chips, soda, sugary carbonated drinks, and the like, would be an excellent, life-affirming and health improving change for everyone. This is a serious matter, which will effect the health of millions and provide funding for schools, fill state budget gaps, and the like.

It is time I write and let my representatives in the government know that I support this issue.

If you’d like to reach them:
1) Contact Form –
2) Contact Page with all links –

Updated: 3/12/2010

I have heard the new ad. It sounds more “inclusive” and does not include what’s-his-face music.


Business Failures: Contempt for Customers

The number 1 reason why businesses fail: contempt for customers, often translated and dressed up as falling sales, or loss of revenue. It probably used to take over 10, maybe even 50 years, before it completely collapsed, but today I don’t think that is feasible. Word of mouth travels too fast today.

Companies can spend as much as they like to keep good face. Money will be misallocated on public relations, campaign contributions, sweet talking and bribing big media people to lace every “report” with hyped talking points, and getting writers to spread positive, albeit ridiculous and nonsensical, counter points electronically, or in whatever medium they can flood.

However, nothing matches the fine fury of a person(s) who feels pissed off, gypped, robbed, and treated like fecal matter by a company. And the larger the organization, guarantees the hotter the raging inferno of consumer discontent.

Customer complaints are not hard to find. Before I make an expensive purchase, I review the angriest comments first. I always do. I don’t look at complimentary words: I suspect they were bought and paid for. If the story is reasonable, I take them into consideration. It does not mean that I would be dissuaded from making the purchase, but it fits into the aspect of “buyer beware.”

Fix It, Don’t Suppress It

Companies should embrace consumer complaints, and not try to snuff out, or execute, the people making them. Of course, there are people who are miserable about anything and are vindictive. However, if there’s a pattern, they should fix the issue, and stop hiding from it. A re-evaluation of the organization – top to bottom – should not be just a management fad, but an endeavor to help it survive long term.

I’ve worked for enough companies to realize that a lot of employees are not encouraged, or motivated, to function at anything besides the most basic, lowest, borderline level of service, competence, or concern about their work. They are as dismayed by management insouciance as the customers they have to interact with. If employees are indifferent, hostile or contemptuous they are only reflecting the incentives and culture cultivated by upper management.

Government Cannot Save Them

So, my feeling is this: the use of all these government funds, our tax dollars, to rescue failed or failing corporations is a waste of time, money, resources, and cripples future sentiment among the public to assist other organizations. No matter how much a portion of the economy a failed company claims to have, and it could be due solely to monopoly practices and political bribes, if it is dysfunctional, stagnant, contemptuous of its consumers, and poorly run – there will never be enough money to save it.


Black Woman: Another Milestone in Corporate America

This is Ursula Burns, who will become the first female (of African descent) of a major American Corporation.

Per the New York Times:

Ms. Burns is the first African-American woman to run a company this large. Xerox reported revenue of $17.6 billion in 2008.

By the way, I put her picture here for a reason: her hair is natural. She looks very professional to me.

Frankly, I’m tired of reading from the paranoid among us who think that everyone cares about our hair. Only we do, no one else. They care about the brain beneath the hair.

I salute you, Ms. Burns.


Tis the Season: Monday Random Thoughts

I love, and hate, this time of year. I actually like the cold weather, although the cold weather may not like me. I’m pleased to limit my personal exposure to this seasonal emphasis of, “Be Happy! Be Happy! Spend! Spend! Spend! Until you don’t have a nickel to lend!

Consumerism does not enrich the spirit, it impoverishes it. It’s a national delirium, where folks end up trampling another human being just to buy a cheap import they will toss in three months. A shame, really.
*Ebenezer Scrooge is My Hero!

I can be as happy without this holiday as with it. Dates don’t carry any special significance for me: I can’t even recall my own birthday sometimes. Christmas lost its relevant religious connotation eons ago.

I like December, because that is when the snows first fall (at least around here). Otherwise, I’m rather blase blase about everything. I don’t like Christmas parties. I don’t like Christmas cards. I hate false conviviality. Bah! Humbug! Christmas has morphed and devolved into collective gift buying guilt.

Always remember that today’s Christmas is corporate America’s creation, which is to keep you spending.
Speaking of Spending
I’ve ordered and cancelled so many items in the past few days it’s ridiculous. I’m trying to control myself. I’m forcing myself to put down the credit card and only use cash.
Struggling with that type of self-control makes me break out into a cold sweat.
I want a new laptop. The other one is busted, but I must wait. I must wait. I must wait. And yet, I want a new laptop! Now! I’m trying to decide between a Mac and a Dell. I don’t think I can deal with the Vista O/S right now.
Alas, tis the season for getting what I need, not what I want.
It’s going to be a long winter.
*One of my favorite Christmas stories: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.