The Punchline

Will Watson beat us at our own game?

Katharine Crnko Feb 16, 2011

Jeopardy! champs Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings may have met their best match: Watson, the IBM super-computer with a profound command of natural language and 10 power servers of trivia knowledge.

The humanoids faced-off against Watson Monday night, giving the computer’s 15 trillion bytes of memory a run for the $1 million prize. Rutter, the show’s all-time money-winner with $3.25 million, tied Watson in Round 1 with $5,000 each. Jennings, who has the show’s longest winning streak at 74 games, finished with just $2,000. Last night, Watson beat his human opponents to the buzzer 25 out of 30 times. Watson only missed one question — he finished Double Jeopardy with over $35,000. Rutter and Jennings finished with $10,400 and $4,800 respectively. Tonight is Final Jeopardy.

America’s favorite trivia show has quickly become a 21st century battle-scene enactment of man versus computer. If Watson beats America’s crowned kings of trivia, what does it say about the human brain? Does a human loss make way for Watson, and similar artificial intelligence technologies, to put knowledge-based jobs in jeopardy?

IBM has high hopes for the computer. “Watson’s first test will be on Jeopardy!, but the real test will be applying the underlying data management and analytics technology across different industries,” the company said on its website. Watson-like technology could be used to provide customer service and support, conduct legal research and offer a medical diagnosis.

Watson’s training featured thousands of sample Jeopardy! questions and hours of practice. The super-computer learns much like humans do, except once Watson learns a fact, that knowledge is stored forever and can be quickly and easily recalled.

Watson is not a thinking machine — it was built to play Jeopardy!. That doesn’t mean it won’t replace workers. Here’s what author Martin Ford said in an article for Fortune magazine.

Nearly all jobs in today’s economy are specialized, and as applications like Watson become more versatile and affordable, they will be used in a variety of areas, especially in large organizations.

Jeopardy!’s long time host Alex Trebek isn’t worried about losing his job to a computer, nor is he shy about broadcasting his aversion to technology. His interest in computers ended in the ’90s, and his cell phone still has an antenna. “I don’t text. I don’t access the Internet. I don’t blog. I don’t tweet,” says Trebek.

For now, it looks like Trebek’s job is safe. IBM hasn’t created a computer with enough personality to match his TV presence. And even the best looking computer can’t compete with Trebek’s famed mustache.

Check out Associated Press’s video about Watson, its challengers, and why it will change how we use technology.


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