The game show Jeopardy is doing a special three-show series pitting the top two champions against a Watson, a computer developed by IBM. The first two shows were Monday and Tuesday, the last will be tonight.
Last week I watched a NOVA documentary about how the research team at IBM developed Watson. The hardest part was not the answers, but programming a computer to understand the answers. The team worked for over 3 years. Watson failed an earlier audition for Jeopardy but finally got good enough to compete.
I didn't think much of watching this contest, seemed like a novelty - man vs machine. But as Watson continually plowed through the board answering question after question correctly, it got a little spooky. Computers aren't supposed to be able to do this, but there it was for all to see.
I didn't get a sense that Watson is an artificial intelligence. While playing Jeopardy requires certain skills, it's a niche and nothing like the breadth of experiences human being deal with every day. Still, it was eerie watching Watson answer even fairly convoluted questions and come up with the correct answer most of the time.
That said, Watson has a huge advantage because he gets the entire text of the question (yes, it's technically the answer in the Jeopardy format) when it is revealed and a machine can easily time the button press more accurately than a human with reaction delays. The human players (Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter) were able to beat Watson to the buzzer only a few times. Getting first crack at almost every question is a huge advantage that Watson exploited.
Also, the questions seemed a little easy. They were typical for Jeopardy, but I expected tougher questions given Watson is playing two Jeopardy champions. The questions seemed to have plenty of clues and very few of them involved puns or other linguistic quirks that Watson may have had a hard time with.
Still, Watson's performance was impressive.
The IBM research team has already targeted medical research as a field where Watson's technology could help doctors pull the information they need from the vast pool of medical research.
I can't yet shake that creepy feeling I had. Probably because I've read too many SciFi books and watched too many movies where the machines become intelligent and bad things happen. This image is funny (or is it prophetic?):
I found the image here.