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Posted at 8:32 PM ET, 02/15/2011

Watson on 'Jeopardy': How trivial is trivia?

By Elizabeth Flock
Meet Watson. (AP Photo/Jeopardy Productions, Inc.)

Update: Watson won this round.

The AP reports:

On the 30-question game board, veteran "Jeopardy" champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter managed only five correct responses between them during the Double Jeopardy round that aired Tuesday. They ended the first game of the two-game face-off with paltry earnings of $4,800 and $10,400 respectively.

Watson, their IBM supercomputer nemesis, emerged from the Final Jeopardy round with $35,734.

Even when he bungled Final Jeopardy, Watson (with his 10 offstage racks of computer servers) remained poised. The answer: "Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle."

Both Jennings and Rutter knew the right response was Chicago. Watson guessed doubtfully, "What is Toronto?????" It didn't matter. He had shrewdly wagered only $947.

The trio will return Wednesday, when their second game is aired. The overall winner will collect $1 million.

Earlier: As the hours count down to night two of the three-night contest between IBM's Watson supercomputer and humans Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings on trivia show "Jeopardy," we ask you: How trivial is trivia?

Washington Post staff writer and 2006 "Jeopardy" contestant Alexandra Petri says that the fate of trivia buffs in a Google world is not so certain.

"Now that it's so easy to find the answer, why carry it around in your brain?" Petri writes. "Rote memorization is a thing of the past. State capitals? Please. The dictionary? You have an iPhone. Libraries? You have a Kindle. With a keystroke, you can answer any question, and it's no fun to be a know-it-all when everyone else is, too."

Ken Jennings, of course, doesn't agree. He contends there's still a value in knowing things and that Watson proves that. "It did make me appreciate the human brain. The protein and salt and whatever ... that little bit of tissue could hang in there with a billion-dollar supercomputer."

Either way, the trivia slugfest between human and computer will be watched closely tonight, and tomorrow, as we watch with bated breath to see: Will Watson be able to answer nuanced questions or won't he? Will Brad Rutter prove he's superhuman?

For now, trivia lives on.


Read more of Petri's thoughts on trivia here.

Content with dumbness? Use our "world's dumbest computer" to generate some D.C.-themed answers during tonight's contest.

And watch "Jeopardy" host Alex Trebek, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter discuss the challenge of taking on Watson:

By Elizabeth Flock  | February 15, 2011; 8:32 PM ET
Categories:  PM Snack  
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Watson, the computer, has only demonstrated that it is faster in responding to a question than the two human contestants. That doesn't mean it knows more because the rules of jeopardy do not allow for the slower contestants to say what whether they knew the answer or not. The competition is about speed not intelligence. If someone can answer a question in one second instead of three seconds doesn't mean they are smarter, only quicker.

Posted by: interactingdc | February 16, 2011 12:21 AM | Report abuse

Apparently Watson gets the questions electronically, which gives it a notable time advantage in searching for the answer. It ought to have to see and hear the clue in order to make it deal with the same time constraints as people.

Posted by: zcezcest1 | February 16, 2011 12:23 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps there is a time advantage and making the computer do speech recognition would help initially, but computers get faster every year so we should look at its correct performance more than its speed.

Posted by: JohnE2 | February 16, 2011 1:13 AM | Report abuse

I think the shortcomings Watson demonstrated Monday and Tuesday overshadowed the "win."

Posted by: BlanketyBlank | February 16, 2011 1:22 AM | Report abuse

The posters above who are referencing the response time factor are absolutely correct. Take it from me; I've been there. Scoring and winning on JEOPARDY! is dependent overwhelmingly on being able to "ring in" at the precisely correct moment. Human contestants must await an electronic signal (lights on the perimeter of the game board), which is activated by a JEOPARDY! staff member after Mr. Trebek finishes reading the question. If one rings in too fast, one is "locked out"; too slowly, and the chance to answer goes to a competitor. In addition to Watson's getting a head start on the questions - being furnished with each instantaneously and before it is read by Trebek - Watson has to be getting the "OK to ring" message instantaneously as well. The machinery is clearly calibrated to send the OK message to Watson at precisely the right moment, and further calibrated so that its "ringing in" is quicker than even the smartest and most experienced human JEOPARDY! contestant is capable of. This is a huge advantage. The only way to level the playing field would be to recalibrate the machine to impose some small delay on Watson's ability to ring in.

Posted by: nan_lynn | February 16, 2011 2:37 AM | Report abuse

The funniest thing about the fact that it guessed Toronto was that the category was labeled "U.S. Cities"!!!!

Posted by: jeffreyclarke | February 16, 2011 2:43 AM | Report abuse

The posters above are rather missing the main point: For Watson to be even remotely competitive -- delay advantage or not -- demonstrates a giant step forward in the science of Artificial Intelligence. It takes far more than Google searches to do well, but requires a nuanced understanding of the irony of the categories and wording of the questions.

Posted by: egc52556 | February 16, 2011 2:59 AM | Report abuse

Watson also can't enjoy any Potent Potables.

Posted by: bs2004 | February 16, 2011 6:18 AM | Report abuse

One correction for the article. Watson is an "it," not a "he."

Posted by: pippop120 | February 16, 2011 6:48 AM | Report abuse

Most the questions did not involve clever word play; most questions were simple "look it up in a dictionary or encyclopedia" questions. So I'm not surprised the computer won. And I didn't find the show at all interesting.

Posted by: jjedif | February 16, 2011 7:47 AM | Report abuse

Regarding Watson's 'unfair' advantage on the buzzer and such. A little research would reveal this:

From the IBM Research news blog:

"When host Alex Trebek finishes stating a clue, a human operator (who works for Jeopardy!) turns on a “Buzzer Enable” light on stage to indicate that contestants can “buzz in” and answer. At exactly the moment the “Buzzer Enable” light is activated, Watson’s system receives a signal that the buzzer is open."

"At exactly the moment that the clue is revealed on the game board, a text is sent electronically to Watson’s POWER7 chips. So, Watson receives the clue text at the same time it hits Brad Rutter’s and Ken Jennings’ retinas.... For some clues he may not complete the question answering computation in time to make the decision to buzz in."

Posted by: rmcbain | February 16, 2011 8:14 AM | Report abuse

A more appropriate test would have included giving Watson an "eye" and a text reader as well as voice recognition, both readily accessible and mature technologies available even on PCs that have been obsolete for years, and not fed the answers electronically.

Watson is winning because no human's thumb can match a machine's reflexes in pushing a button. We puny humans need to read the clues and process Alex Trebek's spoken words.

Posted by: FergusonFoont | February 16, 2011 8:29 AM | Report abuse

This is not really a contest. It is a demonstration of the advancement of computers to search and retrieve correct information to a question/problem. The contest format is to make the demonstration at least somewhat interesting.

Posted by: jeadpt | February 16, 2011 10:08 AM | Report abuse

I am torn how to feel about this man v. machine showdown. I would feel more confident in an even match if Watson had to visually compute the questions using a camera with some sort of voice recognition assistance vs. being fed the question as a text file.

Obviously the Machine had the advantage of reflex. In Jeopardy! you cannot simply tap the buzzer in an attempt to be first to ring in. There is a delay from the time a question is read until the time when you can ring in with an answer. Watson should ALSO be required to optically recognize the buzzer light. Saying they happen "at the exact same time" is misleading. The supercomputer can process a single command faster than the wire can carry a signal to the player's light, and your brain can process the incoming optical stimuli while informing your finger to press a button. This difference can be measured in milliseconds (or less) but in modern times we should know this is more than enough.

Human simple visual stimulus reaction time: ~190 ms. Watson can burn through thousands of individual computations in the same amount of time.

I get that this is supposed to be a peek into future intuitive function of AI. I like that they have shown information recall can happen with an appropriate collection of data and enough computing power to search it in real time. What I don't like is how the machine cant play the game without human assistance.

Make it read the questions and recognize the buzzer light all by itself.

I would wager this requirement would tip the scales.

Posted by: trident420 | February 16, 2011 12:01 PM | Report abuse

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