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

The performance by IBM's Watson on "Jeopardy!" wasn’t nearly as impressive as it seemed, GCN Lab Director John Breeden II writes.

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.


Related coverage:

IBM’s Watson vs. the human brain: Tale of the tape

IBM’s ‘Jeopardy!’ match more than game playing


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.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.