Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the two most decorated champions in “Jeopardy” history, watched in barely disguised frustration last night as they got steamrolled by an opponent nicknamed “Watson.” On question after question — 25 times in all — Watson buzzed in first, answering correctly 24 times. By the end of last night’s round, Watson had won a total of $35,734, with a stunned Rutter second at $10,400 and Jennings last with $4,800,
Watson, of course, is a rather large computer system created by IBM. The final night of the taped, three-night challenge pitting man against machine will air tonight, and at this point the outcome is not in much doubt.
Personally, I’m intrigued by the Jeopardy matchup in part because back in in 1996, I covered IBM’s first attempt to beat Garry Kasparov, still acknowledged as probably the best chess player in history, during a historic six-game match in Philadelphia. The great and rather egocentric Kasparov won that particular challenge, afterward proclaiming himself the defender of mankind who had beaten back the onslaught of the machine.
A year later, he lost in a rematch, making a terrible blunder in the process. The onslaught of the machine resumed.
The machine that took on Kasparov, nicknamed Deep Blue, was impressive for its day. It could accurately analyze more than 100 million chess positions a second, while Kasparov could at best analyze three. In its database, the computer also contained every move of every chess game ever recorded between chess grandmasters.
Today, 15 years later, the calculating power of “Watson” no doubt puts Deep Blue in the shade. Its ability to comprehend complex, sometimes tricky questions — or as Jeopardy famously frames them, answers — is impressive, and IBM has every right to take pride its accomplishment. The technology has come a long way.
After the Kasparov match, however, I came away more impressed by the power of the human brain than of the machine that human brains had created. The Jeopardy challenge hasn’t changed that conclusion in the slightest.
Jennings and Rutter, remember, are competing against each other as well as against Watson, and are probably splitting the questions that are more human-friendly. In a one-on-one challenge against the machine, they might have done better. And I still find it remarkable that it takes a large roomful of networked and powerful computer servers, fed by an outside energy source and carefully tended by some of our smartest engineers, to compete against the six pounds of flesh inside the human skull. Pound for pound, we’re still by far the smartest thing ever to hit this planet, baby.
And if it’s any consolation, witnesses who saw the contest in person say that the show took four hours to tape because Watson kept crashing.
– Jay Bookman