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'Jeopardy!' Champions Vs. Watson: Can Man Defeat a Machine?

by Danny Gallagher, posted Feb 11th 2011 3:30PM
Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter take on IBM's Who is Watson?

Answer: The name of the supercomputer specifically designed by IBM to mimic a human's intelligence-gathering and reasoning skills. And it is competing on 'Jeopardy!' next week against super-champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

Starting Monday, Feb. 14 (syndicated, check listings), Jennings and Rutter will match their vast stores of trivia knowledge against Watson in a three-day, two-game tournament. The grand total winner of the tournament gets $1 million with $300,000 for second place and $200,000 for third. The two humans have vowed to donate half of their winnings to charity and IBM will donate its entire pot.

'Jeopardy!' is one of the most pressure-filled environments any game show contestant can experience, so having to compete against one of the world's most advanced computer learning system must feel like being squeezed in a vice grip under a pneumatic press.

"I've felt more pressure here than I usually do on 'Jeopardy!'," champion Ken Jennings recently told reporters on the phone. "This is the first time I'm playing 'Jeopardy!' for something that's bigger than paying my mortgage or my kids' college fund. I felt like I've been chosen to be a champion of the species. Seven billion homo-sapiens will be let down if I don't take this."

The two admitted they are a little rusty. Both Jennings and Rutter haven't stepped behind a podium since the two competed in the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005 when Rutter took the $2 million grand prize and broke Jennings all-time money win record.

"I haven't even picked up a buzzer," Jennings said. "It's like Gary Kasparov playing the computer without seeing a chessboard in five years."

Once they started to get back into the 'Jeopardy!' mindset by watching some recent games, reviewing information and practicing their buzzer skills, their old habits and reflexes fell back into place.

"I'm always up to play 'Jeopardy!' whenever they call," Rutter said, "but when I first saw Watson through their promotional material, I thought maybe in five years, then we'll get to play that."

The idea of competing against Watson, developed by a dedicated team of IBM computer engineers over the last three years, came up a couple of years ago as the program was in the early and very rough stages of development.

"I thought it was the coolest thing I ever heard," Jennings said, "not just to get to play 'Jeopardy!' again, but playing it against a computer. I was immediately ready to go."

However, the task of competing against a contestant that could not only store an untold number of bits of obscure information but also learn and recall it by accessing millions of sources within microseconds presented the most daunting mental challenge of Jennings and Rutter's careers.

"I felt like John Henry," Rutter said recalling their most recent practice match against Watson, "although I didn't collapse with the buzzer in my hand at the end of the match."

Watson can not only store and collect information almost the same way that humans do, but it has even developed its own strategy for playing 'Jeopardy!' by learning the behaviors and patterns in its practice rounds with other "Jeopardy!" champions.

"Watson was tending to hunt for the 'Daily Doubles' first," Rutter said. "It was sort of like a race to get the 'Daily Double' for yourself."

Watson has even developed his own technique for buzzing in at just the right moment to edge out the other competitors, something that takes timing, not speed, to master.

"There have been times on the show when I've been in the zone with the buzzer," Rutter said. "When Watson, however, has an answer and waneats to buzz in, you just have to get it in."

And unlike flesh and blood contestants, the source material isn't the biggest challenge when it comes to competing against Watson.

"He's equally good at all subject areas," Jennings said. "Success here depends on the format of the questions that are asked."

That may be Watson's biggest weakness. It can access and recall information the same way a human does, but conceptual ideas or ironic puns have become his biggest struggle and often causes him to blurt out flat wrong answers at odd times.

"Success depends on the format of the questions that are asked," Jennings said.

The two haven't ruled out a rematch if technology triumphs over mankind at the end of next week's tournament. They also said they wouldn't mind seeing him try to take on other game shows on the other end of the TV dial.

"I'd like to see Brad, Ken and Watson on other shows and see how it does," Jennings said, "like how it would do on 'Top Chef."

"I think they should bring back 'Double Dare,'" Rutter joked, "and see how it does when it gets slime dumped on it."

Some Other Interesting "Potpourri" From Ken and Brad:
• Watson seems to have developed his own "game theory" when it comes to placing a bid on a Daily Double or during Final Jeopardy. During their practice rounds, Watson entered a very specific bid on a Daily Double, "something ending in seven." Rutter said it took him by surprise.

• There is no trainer or "Zen master" to learn the art of buzzing in at the precise moment. Jennings said he practices his buzzing by standing behind his recliner as he watches the show and tries to buzz in with a ballpoint pen along the contestants on the screen. Rutter said his years of playing games like "Metroid" on the NES made him a better buzzer-inner.

• Another disadvantage of Watson's is his inability to banter with Alex. "I remember Alex coaching us saying that we're going to have to be funnier than usual because Watson is not going to carry his share," Jennings said.

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February 11 2011 at 9:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What is a three-day, two-game tournament on Jeopardy ?!?!

February 11 2011 at 4:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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