What is ... the computer that cheated at 'Jeopardy!'?

IBM's Watson beat human champs at a game show. Is anyone surprised?

We should note that the headline of this item is a matter of contention. Whether IBM’s Watson computer actually cheated when it beat two past "Jeopardy!" champions at the TV game show is perhaps a matter of perspective.

What does seem clear is that Watson beat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter by being a computer rather than a human. As John Breeden II put it in a GCN Lab Impressions item:

"[W]ould 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."

Breeden isn’t the only technology commentator unimpressed with Watson’s victory.

Joanna Weiss, writing in the Boston Globe, waved off Watson’s win as a foregone conclusion and focused on IBM’s efforts to humanize the computer.

“What Watson represented was a potential personality, a computer that might act more authentically human than ever before,” she wrote. “But in the end, Watson played ‘Jeopardy!’ just like a computer would; he was as cool in the face of his silly mistakes as he was when he ended up victorious. What his game-show run did beautifully, in fact, was highlight just how hard it would be to mimic the complexity of people. Humans do very strange things, from a computer’s standpoint. We think it’s clever to phrase answers in the form of a question. We insist on placing bets with numbers that end in 0 and 5.”

The St. Petersburg Times, in an unsigned editorial, shrugged off Watson’s victory.

“But any predictions of a HAL-like, '2001: A Space Odyssey' takeover of human society are premature. In order to defeat Jennings and Rutter, IBM invested four years of research, a team of 25 scientists and an estimated $30 million,” the Times wrote. “Now that Watson has dispatched its foes, IBM plans to put the creation to more substantive work in medical science, the financial community and other endeavors requiring accessing vast amounts of data. The big winner in this contest was science.”

Or as Breeden concluded: “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 every day anyway.”

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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