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.