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Not OK, Computer; The Last “Jeopardy!” Post For Now

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There was a glimmer of hope for the humans after Monday night, when Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter — our chosen representatives in the battle against the machines — kept it close against Watson. Brad was even tied with Watson for $5000.

Then it got ugly. And stopped being fun. Last night Watson ran up the score to the tune of $35,754, more than tripling Brad’s $10,400. Ken finished a distant third with $4800. After whetting our appetite with an opening night that suggested this could be a fair match, the “Jeopardy!” producers — or IBM — or Watson’s sinister artificial intelligence and cold, robot soul — pulled a bait-and-switch. This was not a competition. This was bloodsport.

It was joyless to watch Watson’s dominance. As Ezra Deutsch-Feldman put it, Watson’s precision at buzzing in — the trickiest part of the show, since doing so before Alex Trebek finishes reading the clue can momentarily lock a contestant out — is “akin to playing against an opponent with near-perfect reflexes.” What’s impressive the first couple times — Watson sure is fast! — is tiresome by the tenth. (So was watching the look of frustration, then resignation, on Brad’s face after getting beat to the punch so many times.)

What to make of the bizarre Final Jeopardy! answer given by Watson? The clue was “Its largest airport was named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle,” and both Ken and Brad answered “What is Chicago?” Watson answered, “What is Toronto?????” — which is not even a U.S. city, the subject of last night’s Final Jeopardy! category. IBM researchers attempted to explain what went wrong there, not that it mattered in the outcome — Watson bet only $947. This was easily the creepiest moment of the night. Was Watson toying with us? Did it do that on purpose? Was this the first sign of a HAL-like breakdown?

If it is, we won’t be watching. Tonight’s episode is a rubber match between man and machine, but the outcome is a foregone conclusion. The best “Jeopardy!” moments are human ones — the slip-ups, the guesses-that-turn-out-to-be-correct, the disastrous (or game-saving) overbids on Daily Double clues that result in drastic momentum changes. Watson negates all of that. It is less a measurement of artificial intelligence than mechanical precision. A machine will punch a button faster than a human nine times out of ten. You were set up, Ken and Brad. Here’s what you need to do: Pull the plug.

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3 thoughts on “Not OK, Computer; The Last “Jeopardy!” Post For Now

  1. You can just keep your pessimistic take on last nights technological triumph.

    I myself welcome our new robot overlords and look forward to a mid-level management position in their world dominating organization.

    Also, I have forwarded my enemies list to IBM headquarters. And yes, it is spelled B-r-u-e-g-g-e-m-a-n-n.

    1. You obviously can’t win without Jeopardy knowing the answer, but I didn’t realize until I got on the show how much success was about timing more than knowledge or simple speed. Most of the players know the answers to most of the questions, but the only one who can show it is the one who can buzz in exactly when Trebek finishes reading/the light comes on. I definitely knew many of the answers that my opponent got, but he was substantially better at timing his buzzer than I was (and I made some very poor wagers). I get that its ability to get the timing could seem unfair, but the fact that it was able to figure out the answers makes Watson impressive, and the that it can do it with the right timing just makes it really good at the game. I still would like Watson to have to use the audio/video cues the players use rather than have them sent to him electronically.

      1. Dave Camp, you are one of just two people I personally know who has been on “Jeopardy!”, so I am taking your word as the definitive one.

        Had I been competing against Watson, though, I would’ve thrown a shoe.

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