Posts Tagged ‘Ken Jennings’

 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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There was an interesting story on 60 Minutes last night about a condition that it is very rare called hyperthymesia where the affected individuals have superior autobiographical memory.  That is the the ability to recall practically every moment from their lives and all the events they encountered in those moments.  They are able to somehow, withoutany effort or without  resorting to the use of mnemonics of any sort, organize this vast store of memory and randomly pull the information out as needed.

It’s an extremely rare  condition with only 6 known cases in the USA, although there are probably many more out there who have not come forward for examination.  Actually, before this 60 Minutes story there were only 5 known cases.  Reporter Leslie Stahl, who was doing this report, upon hearing the effects of this condition thought it sounded like her friend, actress Marilu Henner, best known from her role as Elaine on the show Taxi.  She agreed to be tested and was added to the so far small group of individuals.

The story was fascinating.  If anything it raised more questions than it answered.  Would this be a good thing or a curse for those who possess it?  How does it affect their day-to-day life?  Does this recall have any effect on these individuals’ overall intelligence?  Is there a tradeoff of some sort for this ability?

These are not savants or people who are crippled by the seemingly compulsive nature of their condition.  The 5 of the 6 known cases that were shown (one did not want to appear as part of this story) all appear to be extremely high functioning people.  Besides Henner, there was a concert violinist, a radio talk show host, and  a man in the production end of the entertainment field.  The final man’s occupation was not disclosed. 

Only Henner was married or in a relationship.  Perhaps the inability to set aside another person’s flawed moments would hinder any relationship or perhaps there is a certain alienation caused by the condition that inhibits intimacy.  The concert violinist expressed a certain alienation when she spoke of feeling as though she were fluent in a language that nobody else knew, one that she couldn’t share with anyone.

Not mentioned in the story was a recent documentary film about one the subjects.  Called Unforgettable, the film, made by his brother Eric Williams, focuses on the life of Brad Williams who is a radio talk show host and is known as the Human Google Jeopardy super champion Ken Jennings makes an appearance.  I don’t know if they show the two of them competing but,  in his blog, Jennings talks of Williams “wiping the floor” with him when they ran into one another at a trivia contest at a local bar.  He also makes the distinction between the way his and Williams’ minds work, pointing out they are functioning in completely different ways.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since seeing it, wondering if it would be great to possess such an ability.  I obsess, as it is, over the loss of memory so why not be able to have such an organized brain that you could easily find that which was put in there to begin with?  Would it make our lives different?  The concert violinist made an interesting point when she spoke of it as a gift that allows her to live her life with great intention.  By that she meant that because she knew she would remember every moment she strived to make every day significant.  No throwaways.  An intriguing concept.

I feel like someone in the 1970’s who has Commodore computer and is suddenly given a glimpse of the best computer available in the year 2020.  Envious, but stuck with what I got.  Oh, well…

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