Archive for February 16th, 2011

 Man versus machine.  John Henry and his hammer versus the steam drill. Now Jeopardy.

I’ve watched with interest the first two nights of the exhibition on Jeopardy pitting the two top players in its long run, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter against Watson, the IBM supercomputer that contains something like 15 trillion pieces of data.  It’s been a pretty impressive display in these first two days for Watson as it racked up over $36,000 in winnings versus Jennings’ $4,800 and Rutter’s $10,400.  In the Double Jeopardy round, Jennings and Rutter only managed 5 correct answers.

Maybe I’m rooting too much for the human mind to defeat a machine that takes a room of servers and a huge team of techs to operate but I found this whole thing pretty frustrating.  It wasn’t that the machine defeated these two players in knowledge but that it seemed to have a definite mechanical advantage in ringing in first to answer.  Outside of a couple of questions, which all the contestants, including Watson, missed, this was not an extremely difficult game.  You could see that the two champions knew the answers but were simply defeated mechanically.  It was irritating to watch and there seemed to be a bit of frustration on the two humans’ faces at the end. 

When the machine missed, it missed wildly.  For instance, the Final Jeopardy question was in the category U.S. Cities and asked which city had an airport named after a World War II hero and one named for a WW II battle.  The answer, of course, was Chicago.  Watson answered Toronto, which doesn’t even fall under the final category.  With the thirty seconds given to answer, it seems there was breakdown in its comprehension.

I have some question as to how the machine is given the questions.  I believe that Alex Trebek stated that the computer was digitally  fed the questions simultaneously.  So this was not voice recognition technology.  It was, instead, just a very large computer pulling up data at a fast pace then beating its opponents to the buzzer with superior mechanical timing.  Timing is vital in ringing in on Jeopardy so a tuned mechanical device would have a definite advantage against even the most adept human.

I sound like I’m a bit technophobic here.  I do appreciate the advances of technology and am constantly amazed at how quickly our world changes with each new breakthrough.  It’s mind-boggling  how different our world is today when compared to even a mere thirty years back due to the changes in technology.  And I’m sure that there are applications where Watson’s power and speed will greatly benefit us as a species in the future.  But for now I find this whole thing a bit frustrating and secretly wish for a John Henry moment where Brad Rutter pulls out a sledge hammer and takes it to this irritating machine.

Here’s my favorite version of that great folk song, John Henry, sung by Johnny Cash:

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