Friday, January 14, 2011

Man vs. Machine on Jeopardy!

Can a computer play Jeopardy? You bet.

I have tried out for "Jeopardy" three times, made the first cut, but never made it on the show.

Here's how the try-outs work: A room full of know-it-alls, typically about 100, sit in a large room, and take a written test. The questions are projected on a screen, and the hopefuls answer the questions on a piece of paper, very low-tech. There is a very short window in which to answer each question. Then the coordinators leave the room, grade the papers, and come back and announce who made the cut. Surprisingly, only about 30% typically pass the test. The rest walk away in disappointment, like the bachelorettes who don't get a rose in "The Bachelor". This weeds out the would-be know-it-alls from those of us who really do know it all. Still, it's painful to watch.

The next part is tougher. People come up, three at a time and play a short mock game, where the questions are put on the screen, and you have to buzz in and answer. I learned that by far, the most challenging part of the game is not knowing the answers, but buzzing in before the other two.

As I did very well in both phases of the tryout, I can only attribute my not being selected to my utter lack of charisma.

Now, IBM has developed a computer, named "Watson", that is programmed to play Jeopardy, and is scheduled to play in a tournament against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, Jeopardy's two most successful champions. I believe that Watson will mop the floor with Jennings and Rutter, and here's why:

When I was in high school in the mid 70's, I remember arguing with my math teacher that a computer could be programmed to play chess. He disagreed. I was an avid chess player at the time and knew the key to winning in chess is playing many games, remembering your mistakes, and not making those mistakes when similar situations arise. Some humans are better able to do this than others. I believed a computer could be programmed to do it, and I was right.

With today's technology, it's a no-brainer to program all the knowledge of the universe into a computer. The  programming challenge is to have the voice-recognition software to process the question and hit the button first. It appears that the folks at IBM have mastered this, or at least have come close.

Watson will win because it can skip a step the humans cannot: the human brain must send a signal to the human thumb to hit the button. Watson can accomplish this task practically instantaneously. So, all things being equal, lets say Watson, Mr. Jennings, and Mr. Rutter possess all the knowledge of the universe, Watson will be able to buzz in faster, every time.

This was borne out in a recent practice run, in which Watson won handily. A full tournament is scheduled for mid-February. If Mr. Jennings and Mr. Rutter want to have even a fighting chance, they had better practice their brain-thumb coordination. No charisma is necessary.

No comments: