As I mentioned in my last posting, I am a huge fan of Jeopardy!. This week, I watched two human beings play against an IBM supercomputer known as Watson. The contest took place over two days and there were three rounds of play. The human contestants consisted of top Jeopardy! winners Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings.
I have to say that I was cheering for my fellow humans. Alas, it was not to be! After the first round of the competition, the contest was too close to call. Rutter was tied with Watson while Jennings was only a few thousand dollars behind. In the second round, known as Double Jeopardy, the complexion of the game changed dramatically. The supercomputer pulled ahead and took a massive lead of more than $30,000. It managed to buzz in ahead of the humans almost all the time and it usually answered correctly.
Then came the third round, known as Final Jeopardy!. The category was U.S. cities and the question was, “This U.S. city’s largest airport is named for a famous World War II hero, its second largest for a famous World War II battle." Both human contestants answered correctly with Chicago (O’Hare Airport and Midway Airport). Supercomputer Watson, on the other hand, wrote down, “What is Toronto???” and the audience was shocked. I sat there in disbelief. Instead of an American city, this technological marvel had chosen the largest city in Canada, which just happens to be my hometown. The show's Canadian-born host, Alex Trebek. was also clearly taken aback.
The supercomputer still won the game easily because it wagered only a pittance on its Final Jeopardy! answer. I felt pleased, however, that Watson performed so poorly on the Final Jeopardy! segment. It was rather reassuring to see the machine come up with a head-scratching answer. The system obviously has some glitches.
Although the supercomputer outplayed Ken and Brad, it was still gratifying to watch a couple of flesh-and-blood human beings outperform a computer in at least one segment of the competition. Yet, I still wonder why, of all the non-American cities in the entire world, Watson chose Toronto.
Humans make mistakes, but when computers err, they mess up big time. It seemed quite fitting that at the end of the show, Alex Trebek was only able to shake hands with the two human. Watson was visually represented by a face/avatar created with Adobe Flash.
By the way, Watson earned a total prize of $1 million for defeating his opponents. IBM said that the money will be donated to charities World Vision and World Community Grid.
Here is some trivia about Jeopardy. How ironic is that, trivia about a trivia contest?
Jeopardy! made its debut on NBC on March 30, 1964. The show’s creator was Merv Griffin. Merv also composed “Think”, the theme song for Final Jeopardy!. The song was originally titled “A Time for Tony” and was a lullaby which Griffin created for his son, Tony.
Art Fleming was the show’s original host. Fleming died of pancreatic cancer on April 25, 1995 at the age of 70. Alex Trebek has hosted the show since 1984.