Cool, calm and collected computer

Last night, after a two-month build-up, Watson, IBM’s newest supercomputer, competed against two top champions on Jeopardy! and won.

I don’t know if Watson was favored to win the IBM Challenge. When I wrote about the tournament in December, the 89 comments I received represented a diverse mix of opinions and forecasts.

At the end of the final match, Watson had won $77,147, beating former champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, who racked up $24,000 $21,600, respectively. Because it was a special event, these amounts were jacked up to nice round numbers and donated to charity.

The reason this competition piqued my interest in the first place was the project’s aim to enable a computer to recognize, interpret and respond to language subtleties, including irony and sarcasm. In the end, Watson did fairly well with these. I was impressed.

Some have said that Watson had a competitive advantage because a computer can hit the buzzer more quickly than humanly possible. I’d add that, as was pointed out on the first night, Watson knows what it knows and what it doesn’t know, perhaps better, or with more certainly than humans do.

I know nothing about supercomputing technology but, as a human, I do know a little about human nature. If I had to add one more advantage Watson might have had over his human competitors, I might say lack of nerves. It might be argued that Watson has nerves a-plenty in the artificial neural networks running through 90 IBM POWER 750 servers. But not human nerves. Not the kind of nerves that cause rapid heart rate, sweaty palms and ringing in the ears and, ultimately, affect the retrieval of data.

Even though Jennings and Rutter have proven themselves accustomed to functioning well under pressure, they are human.

I don’t know about you, but whether it’s taking an important exam or speaking to a room full of people, I can be as prepared as anyone, having read, studied, tested myself, drilled, practiced and rehearsed in front of a mirror. When the moment comes and the pressure is on, those nerves kick in, the rooms starts to spin and I can draw a complete blank.

Watson didn’t have to take deep breaths or do positive visualizations or whatever else nervous people do to overcome stage fright. Or did he?

Maybe he was picturing Alex Trebek in his underwear.

7 Comments

Filed under All Things Wordish, Movies, Television and Radio, Technology and Social Media

7 responses to “Cool, calm and collected computer

  1. Marty

    “Maybe he was picturing Alex Trebek in his underwear.”

    Watson might have won on Jeodardy, but not in a 1,000 years would the machine come up with the line above. Brilliant writing.

  2. I thought it was fascinating to watch. One additional note, Watson did not have to learn all that information by himself. He had many people that input the data into him so he had access to it. Most people have to pick and choose what they will study and try to remember, hoping to focus in on the correct subjects that might be presented. Watson could have everything input into his system.

  3. Mom

    I always love your punchlines!

  4. Deirdre

    Check out Ken Jennings take on the experience:
    http://www.slate.com/id/2284721/

  5. Gary Dingle

    I love computer technology. From computerized bionic replacement body parts to Watson; the advances just keep coming. We will see an accurate interpretation of nerves and anxiety in next demonstration of artificial intelligence if required or requested. The question is why would you want to incorporate a seemingly useless human frailty anxiety or nerves in an artificially intelligent device. There is at least one good reason. It is related to the potential for enhanced performance. People who respond positively to nerves and increased anxiety perform at enhanced levels far above their average levels. There is no need to talk about negative responses. An artificial intelligent device (Watson) could be more efficient if it turned on turbo mode in response to stress, nerves or anxiety similar to a shot of adrenalin in humans . We can chalk up another advantage for the intelligent computer. Because we can force it to always respond positively with enhanced performance unlike nervous anxious humans.

  6. Marty

    Gary…Excellent observation! The fascinating aspect of Watson is the ability to interpret English word usage.

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