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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Jeopardy - human versus computer

I am an inveterate fan of Jeopardy, the one game show that requires knowledge and not a bubbly personality that squeals with joy on cue. I was also a one time failed contestant on the show. My answer 'Trans Canadian Highway' was close but no cigar. The correct answer was 'Trans Canada Highway'. The Final Jeopardy category was Award Winning Broadway Musicals and my family in the audience turned to each other and silently said to each other, "he's fucked.' I was, but at least I came in second.

Now the scientists at IBM have harnessed the power of 2,800 powerful PC's and a huge knowledge base to pit 'Watson' against two of the best Jeopardy contestants of all time.

From being up on stage under the bright lights I learned a few things about being a contestant on Jeopardy. A broad general knowledge is critical but not the key ingredient. Quick thinking and the ability to sometimes make an 'educated guest' is key but above all, hand, eye and brain co-ordination is paramount. A contestant can only buzz in once Alex Trebek has finished reading the question. Buzz in too soon and you're shut out for half a second which is more often than not, fatal.

One has to shut out Trebek's voice, scan the question, decide whether you know the answerand time pushing the buzzer to perfection. If you buzz in first, take a second to compose yourself, making sure your brain and mouth are on the same page and then answer. I will finally reveal the wrong answer I gave when I knew the correct answer but didn't take that second to compose myself. The category was 'Let it "B"'. In the first round the categories were Beatle Lyrics and a play on four of their songs. The 'Canadian' answer was in the 'Long and Winding Road' category.

In the category in question the answer began with the letter "B". The question was, "this woman's underwear is derived from French.". The obvious answer, which I know was 'brassiere' but the word 'bloomers' came out of my mouth. To this day friends and family still mock me with one word, 'bloomers'.

The third day of the IBM challenge finished today. It was somewhat anti-climatic with Watson, the computer winning quite easily for one reason alone. Watson was programmed to come up with three possible answers and if it's first choice had more than a 50% certainty of being correct it buzzed in. The difference was that the computer could react faster than the humans and Watson won because it invariably buzzed in first when its answer passed the 50% threshold. It's answers were invariably correct when there was a direct word or words associated with the answer. If it required thinking 'outside the box' where the answer required logic rather than a vast knowledge base it was quite hopeless at times.

Consider the first Final Jeopardy question. The category was US Cities and the question was, 'this city's main airport is named after a Wornd War II hero and it's secondary airport is named after a World War II battle. Both humans and I knew the answer which was Chicago. I had no idea that O'Hare was a Wwar hero but I knew Midway was a battle in World War II. Watsone answered Toronto. Not exactly in the U.S. but at least Watson got a good laugh out of the audience.

Watson won with a final total of about $77,000far ahead of Ken Jennings who won a record 74 games in a row. Jennings had a total of $24,000. It proved that a computer can beat a human on linear logic but even the powerful computing ability of Watson is still a long way off from true AI (artificial logic) The human brain remains an amazing organ even with all our neuroses, doubts and at times frustrating lack of logic. If the programmers who created Watson had slowed down Watson's ability to hit the buzzer by a fraction of a second it would have made a far more interesting game.

On a side note, it was obvious the programmers didn't put much effort into teaching the computer how to wager on Double or Final Jeopardy where the contestant has to strategically wager a specific amount of money. It's wagers in those segments was completely random and bore no relation to the totals of its human opponents at that stage of the game.

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