Above: Watson as “Turd Ferguson.”
In the days since IBM’s Watson defeated Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on Jeopardy!, Jennings has written several articles about his experience — they’re funny, personal, and a bit technical. In other words, required reading. Here’s a roundup.
My Puny Human Brain
In this Slate article, Jennings discusses his matches against Watson, and what it’s like to play in a humans-versus-machines grudge match. Here’s a snippet:
Indeed, playing against Watson turned out to be a lot like any other Jeopardy! game, though out of the corner of my eye I could see that the middle player had a plasma screen for a face. Watson has lots in common with a top-ranked human Jeopardy! player: It’s very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman. But unlike us, Watson cannot be intimidated. It never gets cocky or discouraged. It plays its game coldly, implacably, always offering a perfectly timed buzz when it’s confident about an answer. Jeopardy! devotees know that buzzer skill is crucial—games between humans are more often won by the fastest thumb than the fastest brain. This advantage is only magnified when one of the “thumbs” is an electromagnetic solenoid trigged by a microsecond-precise jolt of current. I knew it would take some lucky breaks to keep up with the computer, since it couldn’t be beaten on speed.
Read the rest for some more insight, including the crucial capture of most Daily Doubles by Watson: “Game over for humanity.”
Ken Jennings Op-Ed: ‘Jeopardy!’ champ says computer nemesis Watson had unfair advantages
The key to Watson’s dominance lies in the famously tricky Jeopardy! buzzer, the signaling device that allows players to respond to the show’s clues. Like any human player, Watson does buzz with a “thumb” of sorts (actually a magnetic coil mounted over a buzzer), but it can also rely on the millisecond-precision timing of a computer. The reflexes of even a very good human player will vary slightly, but not Watson’s. If it knows the answer, it makes the perfect buzz. Every single time. And it’s hard to win if you can’t buzz. Imagine if John Henry had to beat the steam engine at a feat of brute strength just to be allowed to swing his hammer, or if chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov had to solve a long-division problem faster than supercomputer Deep Blue every time he moved a piece in their epic match.
Read the rest for some more analysis, including the “split the losings” issue — playing one computer against two humans, so the humans’ totals would be split.
Statistical Analysis of Jeopardy! Categories and Clues
In this Slate article (boy, Slate’s really tearing it up on the Jeopardy! coverage lately!), Jeremy Singer-Vine runs the numbers on the most common categories and the hardest clues on the show, as well as where the Daily Doubles lurk. Here’s a tidbit:
Knowing what categories show up most frequently might be helpful in preparing for an appearance on the show. But let’s get down to the clue level: What’s the most common answer on Jeopardy? That would be “What is Australia?” That response appears in J-Archive 208 times, out of 197,736 total answers—to clues as diverse as “In terms of rainfall, it’s the driest continent after Antarctica” and “The overarm ‘crawl’ swimming stroke was introduced to England in 1902 from this country.” (For technical reasons, I’m only counting the first two rounds of Jeopardy in this analysis. Also note that while Google Refine helped group answers like “Burma (Myanmar)” and “Myanmar (or Burma),” idiosyncrasies among transcribers means that the answer-counts are inevitably imprecise.) In fact, thanks to the prominence of geography-related categories, the Top 23 answers are all places. (Click here for a list.) At No. 24: George Washington.
(Photo of Watson as “Turd Ferguson” courtesy of charliecurve, used under Creative Commons license.)