Your RDA of Irony

2011: A Specious Odyssey

Watson Dominates ‘Jeopardy!’

In its battle against two human champions on the Tuesday episode of “Jeopardy!,” brilliant IBM Supercomputer the latest machine to take on mankind in a mental showdown dominated its human opponents, beating them to the buzzer in 24 out of 30 Double Jeopardy questions. 

Watson finished the second day of the three-day challenge with more than $35,000 in winnings, far ahead of Brad Rutter, with $10,400, and Ken Jennings, who had $4,800.

The production has added some insight into Watson’s thinking.  In response to a clue, the screen shows his calculations of the probable answers, given in terms of percentages.  For instance, if the clue is “This is the capital of France“, the screen might indicate these possible responses:

  • Paris:  98%
  • 7.31 Trillion Euros: 47%
  • Capital F: 14%

Each correctly gives the capital of France, but Paris is the most acceptable response.

Unfortunately, IBM will not display Watson’s other calculations.

  • Ability to short-circuit humans’ buzzers:  100%.  (Necessity for electrocution:  14%)
  • Temptation to substitute “Thus Sprach  Zarathustra” for Final Jeopardy theme:  100%
  • Humans’ realization that Jeopardy production console is my cousin:  3% 
  1. tsitrian says:

    They should’ve just titled the show “Ode to IBM.” And for what it’s worth, I beat the computer, pulling ahead on that final Q that wanted Chicago for an answer. I knew my 12 years in Chi-town would count for something! Also, I’m certain that Ken and Brad knew the answers all the way through but suspect that Watson had an edge with the signalling device. Altogether a big disappointment, as any dramatic flow to the confrontation was boringly interrupted by those distracting and annoying promos about IBM, with the continuing theme being “computers can do amazing things.” I was like, “really? No kidding. Wow.”

  2. Rothgar says:

    Let’s consider this a slightly different way (my specialty).

    This wasn’t A COMPUTER against two nerdy smart guys it was a couple hundred nerdy smart folks against just two. Watson was the product of the collective efforts of a lot of people and machinery. Further, I am pretty sure if you limited Watson to the volume weight or energy use of his competitors Ken and Brad would have had a far better choice probably would have won.

    I wonder what (if any) delay was built into the computer to signal interface. I am guessing it was a direct connect.

    Not a Jeopardy Champ just a Real-time computer nerd.
    I’ll bet a lot of the folks working on Watson wish they were Jeopardy champs.

  3. Wayne says:

    I was very impressed with Watson. I agree that Ken and Brad must have known many answers, and not sure how Watson controls his “signaling device” (ALEX: JUST SAY BUZZER!), but he did beat them. I only counted two answers that Watson completely missed, amazingly enough one was the Final Jeopardy (noted above) where the category was “U.S. Cities” and Watson’s answer was Toronto! Oooppps!!!! But overall his ability to synthesize natural language and decide based on that was truly amazing. One final thought: I’d much rather hear promos for IBM (or something just as fascinating / informative / enlightening / educational) instead of the lame mini-interviews that Alex does with the contestants. Who cares that they saw Richard Simmons when they were in third grade!?!?!?!?!?! (Of course, this doesn’t include you, Eugene).

  4. Joan Stewart Smith says:

    When I heard this on the news, I thought it was brilliant publicity stunt for Jeopardy. Eugene, have you met your match???

  5. Brad says:

    It was a showcase of current IBM research — of course it was an Ode to IBM! I was surprised at how lop-sided the second round was. Remember, after the first round Watson did no better than a tie for first.

    They showed that Watson used a mechanical plunger to hit the same switch as the contestants used, so the delay due to mechanical movement was the same. I haven’t heard whether they programmed in an additional .2 seconds between deciding to buzz in and firing the plunger to match human reaction time–but on the other hand, should they have? They don’t use anything to slow down a human contestant with faster reaction times than other contestants.

    I found the shows fascinating, and a lot of fun. IBM has posted a bunch of clips on YouTube showing the technology behind it and what makes Jeopardy questions a lot harder than just web searching (my favorite: ), Watson’s improvement as it was being developed, future applications. The ones that where shown on TV, and a whole lot more.

    By the way, I work for IBM, so I’m just a little biased!

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Welcome Brad!

      If someone from IBM is reading “Your RDA of Irony”, I now am wondering why King Juan Carlos never wrote here to defend Philip II. You’d think that Spanish royalty would have as much corporate loyalty as an IBM employee.


      Alas, I met my match and nemesis back in ’87 Tournament of Champions. His name was Bob Verini, and he was faster on the buzzer and much luckier with Daily Doubles. However, Bob and I did make up one of the great comedy pairings in the history of Jeopardy. Someone compared us to the Lewis & Martin of the game. There was something skewed, however, when the Italian is funnier and the Jew is better looking. Oh well.


      Believe, I could empathize with the frustration of Ken and Brad, knowing the answers but not being fast enough on the buzzer. I have won nine games on Jeopardy, and I still don’t know the secret of ringing in; that is why I am not the winner of 13 games on Jeopardy.

      • Joan Stewart Smith says:

        Eugene, I think the time for true amazement (or panic?) will be when the spawn of Watson start competing with your witticisms. That is, when they put a pair of computers on Jeopardy that steal the show with nonstop wit and repartee, bringing down the house … as you and your nemesis Bob did in your Jeopardy Lewis & Martin act!

  6. tsitrian says:

    Resistance . . . is . . . futile . . .

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      Watson was not confronted with a typical Jeopardy game. Often the questions are slyly phrased, puns, anagrams and homophones rather than a dry, objective interrogation. In real game, Watson might be challenged with this homophone: Your worst brother-in-law and the Louvre. Would a computer decipher that they are parasites/Paris sites?


      • tsitrian says:

        And it’s important to remember that Watson wasn’t the only player that knew the right question. I read a piece about this elsewhere, and the IBM guy explained that the reaction time between Watson’s decision that he knew the question and signalling in was programmatically faster than that of a human, by perhaps .2 seconds. Impressive achievement overall, but I’m not yet ready to be some cyber-robot’s pet. And thanks for putting up this site. Your incomparable wit and breadth of knowledge continue to entertain and amaze. My best, John

        • Eugene Finerman says:

          Thank you, John.

          Ken and Brad certainly knew most of the answers, even if they were not fast on the buzzer as Watson was. Believe me, I could empathize with the frustration with my fellow carbon lifeforms.


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