Thursday, February 17, 2011

Jeopardy, Watson, and that damned Click!

Brad Rutter looked frustrated. Ken Jennings appeared very frustrated. It’s pretty clear that only one “game” decision enabled Watson to beat these two men: the timing of the click.

I’m very impressed by the ability of the Watson computer system to understand questions. I’m also impressed at the vast database of facts the computer has at its chippertips. But all of that computer power and “knowledge” is not what enabled Watson to win the TV game of Jeopardy.

The majority of the questions asked in these two Jeopardy games required straightforward factual knowledge. It was obvious, again and again, that all three contestants knew the answers to these questions. When they all knew, over and over, it was Watson that clicked first. If Watson had been required to click, oh, a tenth of a second later every time, I think that thousands more dollars would have gone to the human beings. Consequently, Watson’s victory means a great deal less. Now let me explain.

In Jeopardy, the contestants click a button when they want to answer a question. They are not allowed to speed-read the question and click at once. They have to wait until Alex Trebek has finished reading the question out loud. After that, according to John Markoff for the New York Times, a light flashes and then they can click.

Watson was fed the questions as text messages. (I’m sure Watson got no ‘advance info.’ Watson doubtless had to ‘read’ the questions while Ken and Brad were reading them.) If Watson found an answer to a question, it was permitted to click TEN MILLISECONDS after the light flashed. And that moment was too soon for its human opponents.

In the second game (on Wednesday) it was obvious that these two great players were learning to speed up their click reflexes. Perhaps if they played ten more games with Watson, they would gear up their reflexes almost fast enough. But this week, Watson had it all over them.

I understand there was some real agony, in preparing this challenge, about deciding how soon Watson would be allowed to click. Clearly, the decision was unfair. Giving Watson this edge was just great for IBM. I bet that very few humans can answer questions and then click a button within one hundredth of a second after some stimulus! I’d like to see an experimental psych trial back me up on this.

I’ll tell you what it seems like to me: The triumph of Watson could be worth millions to IBM. It could have been very, very,very, very important to Watson’s people to get that response time down to ten milliseconds. Who knows?
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