Thoughts On Watson

The frustration aspect made this an interesting run of shows—in a cringeworthy sort of way


Now that it’s over I should say a little something more about Watson, the computer who was sent by Skynet to take over the world beat the humans on Jeopardy! over the last few days.

Now, the things I don’t know about computers are so numerous that they would overload even the most advanced computer, so I can’t comment much on what Watson says about our mechanized future. Noel Murray’s review tries to go into that issue a bit more. Just as a game, though, the effect was lessened for me by the obvious problem that many people have pointed out: Watson’s real advantage was not that it knew the questions, but that it could process the answers instantly and buzz in with a speed that a human can’t match.

That made it a very frustrating show to watch at times. You could see the frustration on Ken and Brad’s faces too. The worst moment for a Jeopardy! contestant has always been the moment when he knows the correct response but someone else buzzes in a split second before him. Here they were dealing not with a human who has mastered exactly when and how to hit the button, but a machine that is hooked up to another machine. What it really says, maybe, is not that computers are smarter than humans but that machines can more easily be connected to other machines.

Well, the frustration aspect certainly made this an interesting run of shows, in a cringe-y sort of way. And Watson became, depending on how you chose to look at it, either a hilarious hero or a truly hateful villain. (With that glowing spinning thing, making him look like he’d ingested some kind of radioactive fluid that lit up his insides, he reminded me of the character “Blight” from Batman Beyond.) There were even some fun moments where it seemed like the humans had the advantage, like the Pinky and the Brain question that namechecked our own Maurice LaMarche. Computers have not yet learned about ’90s TV cartoons, nor about Canadian voice actors.

And speaking of cartoons, now comes the inevitable scandal where it turns out that — like the UNIVAC machine in the old Bugs Bunny cartoon — Watson has only “one working part” and it’s not necessarily IBM-approved.

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Thoughts On Watson

  1. Actually, "Pinky and the Brain" did pop up as Watson's top answer for that question (close but no cigar, admittedly) – just took him a moment longer to get there.

    • So it did, but the problem was that Watson's top response was "Pinky and the Brain" and the answer was phrased in such a way as to require the response "The Brain." Either the question was phrased in such a way as to confuse Watson or cartoon trivia isn't as hard-wired into computers as other knowledge, which I think is a flaw,

      • I don't think that it hit the "buzz" threshold for that question, in any case.

  2. I think we're missing the point, here – the whole aim here was to demonstrate that computers can take questions asked in a not-so-straitforward way and assemble a coherent response. Yes, a computer will always beat a human in response time, but the response may not make sense. Based on Watson's showing, it's clear we're closer to a world with Star Trek's computers. That is, provided Watson wasn't somehow cheating.

    One thing I found strange was the continuously reinforced message that Watson was not connected to the Internet. As far as I'm concerned this is next to irrelevant, since it seems like he had all of Wikipedia downloaded into it already.

  3. I was just wondering whether computers have not already taken over. In evolutionary terms, a species becomes dominant through sheer numbers. My own family (of 4) has 3 labtops, two stand-alones, an outdated PC in the basement, plus the car, microwave, oven, my watch, the 4 cell phones all should rightfully considered computers. Oops, I forgot the TV, a few electronic games and the thermostat. Does anyone know if (or by how much) we are outnumbered and when that happened?

  4. What is not clear in this competition between the Watson machine and the two champs is how many of the questions did the humans also know the answer to, but were simply beat to the buzzer on.* I realize that the rules of Jeopardy! state the first contestant to buzz in gets the shot at answering. Another contest where the buzz-in isn't such a factor would not be the game Jeopardy!. It is still an amazing display of mechanical and computer engineering. The stars of the show are the computer scientists and engineers, not their puppet, the Watson machine.

    Perhaps this is my point, humans could relatively easily adapt to the new format, where as the humans that set up the Watson machine could not so easily (I presume) alter the processes they have organized to meet the modified format.

    *One could argue that the contestants that played against these champs could probably do very well answering a general knowledge test, but simply failed to do so in this particular format because of the champs had an advantage of extensive knowledge AND fast reaction for the buzz-in requirement.