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Jeopardy! robot champ is smart, but he's no Sherlock: Three things Watson needs to adapt

Jeopardy! robot champ is smart, but he's no Sherlock: Three things Watson needs to adapt

Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter compete against IBM robot "Watson."
Robot_LCD Soundsystem_dancing robot
Although Watson will never be as hip as the LCD Soundsytem robot, what he lacks in cool he makes up for in brains.
Robot_IBM Challenge_Jeopardy_Alex Trebek
Alex Trebek hosts the Jeopardy! IBM Challenge
Robot_LCD Soundsystem_dancing robot
Robot_IBM Challenge_Jeopardy_Alex Trebek

We’ve got robots vacuuming our floors, beating us in chess and even filling in for elementary school teachers. Now they’re ruling the game show world.

IBM’s robot “Watson” may not be as hip as the LCD Soundsystem ‘bot, but what he lacks in cool he makes up for in brains. Watson infamously debuted on Jeopardy! this week to beat down Ken Jennings, the record holder for the longest championship streak, and Brad Rutter, the biggest all-time money winner on the quiz show

Watson impressed but was no Sherlock even in a convincing victory. The first night’s round even ended in a tie — for a computer that cost IBM somewhere between $100 million and $2 billion (company is seemingly too embarrassed to give the exact figure).

IBM developed the artificial intelligence program (named after IBM's founder, Thomas J. Watson) to answer questions posed in conversational language. The ‘bot is part of the DeepQA research project. The program is in the last stages of development and will run on a POWER7 processor-based system.

Watson is no cheater and relies solely on his robo brain to play Jeopardy!  Watson first receives the answer (remember that in Jeopardy! contestants see the “answers” and buzz in with question-form responses) at the same time as the human players. Watson then searches his database for an answer. To dismiss any accusations of cheating, two auditors remain present to ensure the computer doesn't access the Internet.

Watson then physically buzzes in to answer questions, just like his human competitors. While this would seem a task best suited for robots, a member of Watson's algorithms team, Dr. Chris Welty, notes that Rutter’s fast buzzing rivals Watson’s timing.

Watson started off strong in the first episode, stealing the lead from Rutter on the second turn. He nailed a Daily Double square, bet $1,000 and answered correctly. Later, on a “Name That Decade” question, Jennings answered incorrectly with "what is the 1920s?" Watson, who is deaf and blind, buzzed in after Jennings' answer with an identical retort: "What is the 1920s?" 

"No, Ken said that," Alex Trebek said as the avatar's circle-face turned orange with embarrassment.

During a commercial break following Watson's decade gaffe, Welty explained that the team thought the ability to process other players' wrong answers would be unnecessary, as it seemed unlikely both the robot and a contestant would arrive at the same incorrect conclusion.

"We just didn't think it would ever happen," Welty said with a laugh.

Watson’s inability to comprehend contestants’ responses posed another problem, nearly duping Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek into awarding the robot undue points.

First Jennings answered an “Olympic Oddities” question incorrectly to say that Olympian gymnast George Eyser was "missing a hand."

Watson then answered, "What is a leg?"

Trebek initially accepted Watson's answer, but producers stopped taping and re-shot the sequence because Trebek had forgotten that Watson wasn't aware of the context created by Jenning's answer. 

If a human contestant had answered the “Olympic Oddities” question the way Watson did, Trebek would have assumed his or her response was in light of Jennings' answer, with the missing leg implied. However, since Watson couldn't hear Jennings, his answer of "What is a leg?" (rather than "What is missing leg?") was deemed incorrect.

In the aired version of the episode, Trebek declares Watson's answer wrong.

Besides adding the ability to understand and learn from fellow contestants’ responses, we have a few suggestions for improving this brainy ‘bot:

  1. First and foremost, his voice should be changed to sound like Sean Connery.
  2. Watson needs to participate in the repartee. We’d like to see him banter with the show’s host. (“Suck it, Trebek!” comes to mind.)
  3. Watson also falls short when it comes to the awkward introductory anecdotes that characterize a contestant's welcome to the show. Perhaps he could discuss meeting Wall-E or talk about flirting with a Roomba backstage.