IBM Computer Watson Dominates Human Contestants In Second Night of Jeopardy! Challenge

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The IBM computer Watson destroyed all-time Jeopardy! greats Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter tonight, finishing the second round of competition with a commanding lead that will be hard to overcome in tomorrow’s IBM Jeopardy! finale.

Watson, a machine that was built to understand natural language, ended tonight’s show with 35,734 points. Rutter, the all-time leader in Jeopardy! winnings (3.2 million), is in second place with 10,800 points, and Jennings, who holds the longest winning streak in Jeopardy! history at 74 games, is in third place with 4,800 points.

Tonight’s game consisted of one round of Double Jeopardy and one round of Final Jeopardy. Watson dominated early, allowing Jennings to answer only one clue correctly before the first commercial break. Jennings and Rutter had one other opportunity to answer a clue before this, after Watson flubbed an answer about modern art. Alas, neither were able to capitalize on it, as they each submitted incorrect answers too. (It must have been a hard clue if one super computer and two super humans couldn’t answer it correctly.)

Watson was also able to correctly answer both of the Daily Doubles; however, Watson was shaky answering the second Daily Double, prefacing his answer with “I’ll take a guess.” Evidently, Watson utters this expression when none of its ranked answers meet the specified confidence threshold, which changes throughout the game.

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Watson was not quite as effective during the second half of the game, but that’s like complaining about Michael Jordon scoring only 20 points in the second half of a basketball game after he scored 30 in the first. Still, Watson was not able to generate sufficiently confident answers in response to two clues in a row, perhaps its greatest moment of weakness so far in the competition.

Watson also failed to answer the Final Jeopardy clue correctly. However, given its lead, Watson wisely bet a small amount of his winnings during the final round. This is hardly surprising, as a cost-benefit analysis rooted in pure mathematics is precisely what computers have excelled at from the beginning. (And besides that, it’s a common strategy for contestants who are in the lead to bet small amounts during Final Jeopardy, a fact of which Watson is presumably aware.)

During the segments of the show not occupied by the competition, IBM was able to elucidate some of its motivations for creating a machine like Watson.

“Ultimately, we’re not playing Jeopardy!,” said one IBM engineer, in reference to the fact that Jeopardy! is merely a means to an end, namely, the solving of another “grand challenge.”

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Enabling computers to understand natural language – that is, equipping computers with the capacity to meaningfully understand and respond to human language – is one such grand challenge, and that is why IBM is involved with the three-day Jeopardy! extravaganza that has played out across the nation’s televisions.

“[We’re] using Jeopardy! as a playing field on which to do science,” another IBM scientist explained.

For the sake of all the fascinated viewers, we appreciate IBM’s wiliness to exploit Jeopardy! in this way.

Check out yesterday’s post about the IBM computer Watson on Jeopardy! for more background information. Also, be sure to check back tomorrow for our recap of Watson’s final round of Jeopardy!.

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