Watson's 'Jeopardy!' win impressive, but was it set up to win?

Watson, get in here, I need more from you!

So the big news this week in the land of computers is that IBM’s Watson beat two accomplished “Jeopardy!” champions at their own game. Even more impressive was the fact that this was a two-game competition played over three days and the computer won both games.

You would think that a techie like me would be overjoyed at seeing a glimpse into the rise what show loser Ken Jennings called “our new computer overlords.” But actually I was disappointed by the whole dog and pony show, which was set up in a blatantly unfair way to favor the computer.

Although Jennings did well (I think the other contestant, Brad Rutter, played a bad game), there was never any question who would win once I understood the rules – which both “Jeopardy!” and IBM were pretty vague about.

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Now, first off, I will say that this is a great moment for computers. It really showed what they can do in certain circumstances. But would we be similarly impressed if a desktop PC running Microsoft Excel could crunch 50 pages of numbers faster than a math whiz? Because it could.

The point of a game show, or any contest really, is that all contestants are on the same footing and the best person, or computer in this case, wins. But Watson had an unfair advantage: It was being fed the questions electronically.

I wanted to see Watson hear the questions using speech recognition and process them the way humans do. But Watson was instead fed the words that made up the question in ASCII text and then went about searching a database, albeit a good one, looking for patterns and coming up with the proper response. All very rudimentary work for a computer, actually, and not much different than what Google and Bing do everyday right now.

The fact that Watson had a buzzing device is irrelevant. It already knew how it would answer before the question was finished being read, and the humans were still gathering input. And considering that the questions on last night’s show were actually pretty easy for “Jeopardy!” and that Jennings and Rutter obviously knew most of the answers, what Watson really excelled at was buzzing in faster than the humans.

If you truly put Watson on the same footing as humans, with no special input allotted for it, I think Rutter and Jennings would have smoked it. Watson would still have a slightly better chance using those rules than, say, beating a human at a game of basketball, but the “Jeopardy!” champs would have eaten it alive.

I’m not really upset that the computer won. It’s kind of cool, actually. But I expected more from Watson. I thought perhaps we would see real human-like intelligence from a computer, which includes understanding context and natural language.

When you feed ASCII text to Watson, it can only look for patterns in the stream of data. When it receives the pattern “Tennessee Williams” in ASCII, it’s receiving just a string of ASCII bit patterns. Watson has never experienced a play, or even seen people acting. It doesn’t even know what a play is. It can only guess at the best answer based on the input characters without any meaning attached to them whatsoever.

Now if a computer instead was fed data through a microphone or a camera, it could theoretically learn from the patterns it experiences if programmed to do so. It might even start to understand context. What is sentient intelligence, really, other than recognizing patterns and context and then doing things that an organism “likes” while avoiding patterns that it “doesn’t like?”

Although I don’t know if what that system would develop would be real intelligence, that’s the only true path to making computers more like humans, and thus better able to understand us. Watson has none of that true intelligence. It’s just a dumb machine whose feelings won’t be hurt in the least if this column is broken down into ASCII code and fed into its database.

When Watson wins “Dancing With The Stars” or even “The Amazing Race,” I’ll be impressed. Winning “Jeopardy!” under the rules of that last game is simply doing the same brainless tasks computers do everyday anyway.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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