Why Watson’s Jeopardy! Win Is Mostly Meaningless — By a Former Contestant

Geek Culture


Carol Kaelson/Jeopardy Productions Inc., via Associated Press

Don’t worry: Computers aren’t going to take over the world any time soon.

IBM’s supercomputer software Watson’s win on the game show Jeopardy! is little more than a publicity stunt. Its value as a scientific experiment is roughly on par with grade school students showing what happens when you soak a tooth in Coke or add salt to a plant’s soil — that is, it’s not an invalid experiment, but it’s also not exactly news.

I was on the show just over ten years ago, so I can say from personal experience that there are, essentially, three things a contestant must have to do well on Jeopardy!:

  1. A deep and wide knowledge of trivia;
  2. The ability to quickly parse the show’s “answers” for hints; and
  3. At least one fast and dexterous thumb

The show’s screening process is such that the vast majority of contestants will have #1 in spades — I mean, most people aren’t likely to even apply unless they regularly beat all their friends at Trivial Pursuit, so it stands to reason that most of those who actually get on the show will be the crème de la crème of trivia, right? And any reasonably intelligent person is going to watch the show religiously for months before his/her show’s taping, probably on top of years of watching it before that, so will be able to parse the “answers” pretty easily.

The third item, which is easily overlooked by people who haven’t been on the show, is therefore arguably the most important. It just doesn’t matter much if you know every one of the correct responses if you can’t ring in before your opponents who know only 90% of them. When I found out I was going to be on the show, I practiced every day by standing in front of my TV holding a ballpoint pen with a button on the end and furiously clicked the button as many times as quickly as possible as soon as Alex Trebek finished reading each clue. (The system works such that if two or three people click at the exact same time, nobody gets it, so you have to keep clicking as rapidly as you can and hope you will be the lone clicker before either of your opponents is.)

So let’s look at those three items in terms of computer technology. Computers have a definite advantage over humans on item 1, as their memory space is enormous and any reasonably competent tagging system can make finding the applicable information for a particular clue very, very fast.

The third item isn’t even a contest. It should be obvious that when it comes to reacting quickly and doing something repeatedly, there’s just no way a supercomputer loses to a pair of humans — as Jennings himself has said. And that’s not exactly news.

Programming a computer to parse Jeopardy! “answers” is of course the only real advance here, in terms of natural language processing, which is very cool. However, as it’s confined to the form of the show’s clues, which aren’t all (or even most) written in normal conversational English, all the Watson team has really demonstrated is that a genetic algorithm can be effectively applied to a highly restricted form of language processing, which isn’t really that impressive. I mean, there are many thousands of previous Jeopardy! clues and correct responses that can be used to hone the algorithm, since the way the show’s clues are crafted hasn’t changed much over the years. And as for parsing it quickly on the spot, a supercomputer is at worst tied with humans, especially since computers don’t have pesky things like nervousness or unnecessary sensory information to deal with.

What I’m waiting for, what will truly bring computers close to humans overall, is versatility. Building and programming a computer that can beat humans at Jeopardy! in 2011 is a neat thing, and definitely more interesting than a computer that can beat humans at chess was even in 1997, but it’s still ultimately a meaningless publicity stunt. I mean, nobody would argue that playing Jeopardy! is a useful thing for a computer to do, or that the show wouldn’t get very dull if the computer were on it long-term. Let me know when they come up with a computer that can play Jeopardy!, write blog posts and program computers.

You know, so I can smash it before it puts me out of both of my jobs.

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