Tag Archives: nerves

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.


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