Why Watson’s Jeopardy! Win Is Mostly Meaningless (GeekDad Weekly Rewind)

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.)

[Read the rest of Matt Blum’s analysis of Watson’s Jeopardy! win.]

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