Last night was the first of three consecutive episodes of Jeopardy! in which the two most successful contestants in the show's history, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, play against the IBM supercomputer Watson in a friendly match to show how impressively the computer can comprehend human speech patterns, and mimic human memory skills.
One of my nerdier confessions is that I have been a follower of Ken Jennings' blog since his record-setting run on Jeopardy!, where he won 74 games and 2.52 million dollars. Brad Rutter has won the biggest dollar amount on the show, topping out at over $3.2 million. Watson is an artificial intelligence program which can parse natural language patterns to mine its memory for the most appropriate answer. It is not connected to the internet, it does have to physically press the buzzer with a robotic "finger," and it is fed the questions electronically, not by picking up Alex Trebek's vocal cues.
Last night's episode was surprisingly compelling, and proved that observing the skills of this computer is surely enough more than a gimmick to warrant three episodes' worth of gaining an insight into what will be in charge after the coming robot uprising. Watson parses the question for key words, figures out how the structure of the sentence influences the type of answer to look for, and comes up with its top three options. Then, if its "confidence algorithm" intuits that the top guess is likely enough to be right, Watson pushes the buzzer. One major advantage Watson has over its human opponents is that it is prompted as to when the buzzer-clicking time has come, whereas humans may click too early, and not be called upon. One disadvantage which Watson fell prey to in last night's episode is that the robot is "deaf," and cannot hear when its opponent has guessed an incorrect answer, which it may then repeat.
The second installment airs tonight at 7pm on ABC, and the three-episode run ends tomorrow. Tune in for an interesting look at what the really interesting strides in robotics have been - AIBO, this ain't.