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Jeopardy! Hosts Epic Battle of Man Versus Machine

February 17, 2011 3 comments

This week marked a historical landmark for game show fans and technology enthusiasts alike.  Over a two-game competition, Jeopardy’s two highest-winning contestants of all time competed against an IBM-designed supercomputer, Watson, in a new test of man against machine.   Relying on the equivalent of 2,800 powerful computers connected in a high speed network, with a memory capacity of over 15 trillion bites, Watson functioned independently to communicate with Alex Trebek and respond to clues – with neither internet connection nor human assistance to aid him.

Representing the human race were Ken Jennings, who in 2004 earned over $2.5 million over a 74-day winning streak, and Brad Rutter, who accumulated over $3.2 million in regular season-play and other Jeopardy tournaments since his debut in 2000.

Watson (middle) displays its superior handwriting

This situation raises some interesting questions about the competitive relationship between man and technology.  To what extent can a man-made machine surpass the potential of man himself?  Can a machine comprehend complex information provided directly from human interaction?  How autonomous are modern super computers?  Do machines appreciate Alex Trebek’s dry humor?

Watson’s performance alone answered many of these questions.  Between the two games, Watson’s winnings accumulated to $77,147, compared to Jennings’ measly $24,000 and Rutter’s embarrassing $21,600.

Watson, deep in thought and looking confident

While the large supercomputers that power Watson had to be kept in a room backstage, the avatar that stood behind the podium between Jennings and Rutter had a unique presence on the show, seeming at times to be wiser than a mere collection of wires and hardware.  Aside from having a human name, Watson’s “face” would change colors and display threads of light representing thoughtwaves based on its progress and confidence as it pondered its answers.  Additionally, its monotonous electronic voice seemed to possess an unwavering air of superiority.

When asked about his experience competing against Watson, Ken Jennings stated, “I had a great time and would do it again in a heartbeat.  It’s not about the results; this is about being part of the future.”  Spoken like a true second-place competitor, Jennings did not seem overly concerned about seeing a machine beat him at his greatest skill in life, playing Jeopardy.

Should we really be as excited as Jennings about this future?  Watson already displayed his dominance over Jeopardy – how long will it be until future generations of super computers exceed human ability at other tasks?  If Watson can play Jeopardy, what other jobs could it be programmed to do?  Surely it could handle the analytical demands of many popular American jobs, and don’t forget – Watson doesn’t show up late for work, sleep on the job, take sick-days, or demand comfortable work conditions or a fair salary.

Perhaps Watson’s success marks a step forward  in time toward a world in which man himself will fall obsolete to the power of his constantly evolving technology.  But even though Watson was able to answer questions more accurately and quickly than its human competitors, it does not necessarily represent a threat to mankind’s mental capacity and dominance.  To prove this, I have one question for Watson:

How did it feel to compete on Jeopardy?

Not so smart anymore, Watson.  Machine may have won this round, but the future of man’s relationship with technology is still in our hands.

For more information on the technology behind Watson, and to watch Watson compete on Jeopardy, watch this recording of the episode on YouTube: 

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