"Jeopardy!" Unleashed: Watson in Focus.

by Eric Kohn
February 17, 2011 4:23 AM
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On “Jeopardy!” this week, an unlikely contestant has been raking in the dough. Watson, the IBM supercomputer pitted human champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, easily beat its competitors with its rapid-fire ability to seemingly process data faster than any organic brain in history. Or so it seemed, until “his” circuitry started to show. Like many viewers, I was less interested in Watson’s ability to clean up shop than in cyber-god’s occasional slip-ups. The most glaring incident arrived at the end of Tuesday night’s competition, when Watson missed the question on Final Jeopardy with a hilariously telling error.

The clue read as follows: "Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero, its second largest for a World War II battle." Jennings and Rutter both accurately nailed the question -- “What is Chicago?” -- but Watson guessed, to the shock and amusement of millions, “Toronto?????”

It’s not just the wrong response but the hyperbole of five question marks following it that makes this sort of meltdown look like such an incredible lapse. To me it seemed to echo, on some level, of HAL 9000 singing “Daisy” in “2001: A Space Odyssey” while Dave deconstructs the computer’s mind.

Except, in this case, Watson had a safety valve: Unsure of his odds, he wagered a mere $947, and still succeeded at beating his components into the ground. Deaf and dumb, the software still manages to be precise. High level intelligence, on the other hand, provides a separate challenge. The computer can put two and two together, but it can’t really do anything with the resulting quantity. Until Watson’s name appears on the next Kickstarter campaign to build a Robocop statue, rest assured the machines have a long way to go before they become our betters.

At any rate, think Watson's creepy? Try Alex Trebek meets Autotune:

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