"What Is Champion?" IBM's Watson Seals Its Jeopardy Victory

By Andrew Moseman | February 17, 2011 10:35 am

The scores (and the facial expressions of the beleaguered humans) say it all: Last night on Jeopardy, IBM’s Watson supercomputer completed its dominating victory over former champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. The carbon-based life forms managed a few correct answers during the final game of the three-day match, but not nearly enough to overcome Watson’s smarts and speed.

Facing certain defeat at the hands of a room-size IBM computer on Wednesday evening, Ken Jennings, famous for winning 74 games in a row on the TV quiz show, acknowledged the obvious. “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords,” he wrote on his video screen. [The New York Times]

Jennings, who spent much of the three-day extravaganza grimacing with frustration at not being able to buzz in ahead of Watson, wrote up his experiences for Slate today. Once the machine acquired the human skill of parsing Jeopardy questions, he writes, there was really no stopping it. If Watson knew the correct response, it was going to ring in first.

Jeopardy devotees know that buzzer skill is crucial—games between humans are more often won by the fastest thumb than the fastest brain. This advantage is only magnified when one of the “thumbs” is an electromagnetic solenoid triggered by a microsecond-precise jolt of current. I knew it would take some lucky breaks to keep up with the computer, since it couldn’t be beaten on speed. [Slate]

The breaks didn’t come. Watson made a few mistakes, including an embarrassing one in yesterday’s Final Jeopardy. But the machine never wagered too much and lost, while the humans had few chances to catch up via Daily Doubles.

For now, IBM gets to enjoy a victory lap, and the folks behind the game show get to enjoy a bump in publicity (though from now on, the humans who play the regular game will be competing for second place in the Jeopardy pantheon). The excitement to come is seeing how question-and-answer computers like Watson could find their way into our everyday lives.

Last night the talk was about how Watson would improve the automated phone systems that banks and airlines use. IBM’s technological miracle will soon be integrated into our lives, just like those other remarkable inventions – Google’s search algorithm, for instance – that we use everyday but barely notice. [New Scientist]

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Image: IBM

MORE ABOUT: computers, IBM, Jeopardy!, Watson
  • http://floatingbones.com Phil Earnhardt

    IBM’s Watson computer was able to smoke two of the best Jeopardy! players in history. The gargantuan system of 90 Power 750 Express servers, each with 4 CPUs, each of those having 8 cores, all with over 15TB of total RAM, was able to beat two guys to the buzzer by a teeny tiny fraction of a second.

    Big freakin’ deal.

    In their advertising, IBM likes to talk about a smarter and more efficient world — a greener world. What’s the carbon footprint of their Colossus compared to those two tiny organic creatures? I researched that question this morning:

    Each of the Power 750 Express servers consume a maximum of 1,949 watts, or 175kw for the whole computer, and that’s not even including the power for the cryogenically-cooled quantum hyperdrive shunt to actuate the solenoid connected to the Jeopardy! buzzer. A human being standing still would consume at most about 150w — less than 1/10 of 1% of Watson — and he just holds the buzzer in his hand.

    Each of the servers generates a maximum of 6,649 BTU/hour. All together, the machine would generate about 600,000 BTU/hour and require about 50 tons of air conditioning. Presuming heat removal takes about as much energy as the actual computer, Watson would consume over 350kw of power. It can only operate in an environmentally-controlled server room. A human being can operate anywhere and would just sweat a little bit if it got hot.

    IBM: when you’re able to make a green version of Watson that consumes less than 1kw of power, I’ll be impressed. Until then, I’d rather watch humans.

    Notes: The Watson config was found on the Wikipedia. The power usage of the servers was found on IBM’s spec sheets. The cryogenically-controlled quantum hyperdrive shunt is entirely fictional.

  • Jim

    Well, yes, but that’s a little like someone from the ’50s observing that computers are the size of a whole office floor and deciding the technology’s too bulky to keep researching, isn’t it? Also, Watson is currently being used to generate solely one output. My understanding of computer technology is limited, but I do know that if five users are using the same server, that doesn’t mean that the server has five times the service load as it would if there were only one user – I’m not saying that Watson, as it stands, can handle 1000 users, but I’m sure that’s something they’ll look to in future and, if they can do it, it really could be more efficient.

    That said, I don’t know why anyone’s saying that this will improve services provided via phone. Watson has no voice recognition capability, and that’s a whole ‘nother set of problems.

  • amphiox

    Watson has no voice recognition capability, and that’s a whole ‘nother set of problems.

    The application would be achieved by using Watson’s language parsing and search algorithms on information provided by to it by another subsystem with voice recognition capability.

  • Matt B.

    I think Phil Earnhardt has a point. The humans should only have to compete with a computer that uses approximately the same power. Or the humans should get to have backup humans (like the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” lifeline) totaling the same power usage as the computer.

  • Hiran

    IBM should factor in the time that takes humans(30 +year old) to press the buzzer from the point they arrive at an answer if they haven’t already done that.
    Watson rematch.

    But IBM’s point is to show that Watson can process human language. I think they have done a great job.

  • http://clubneko.net/ nick

    Point A) Ken Jennings is my hero for that quote during Final Jeopardy!

    Phil: You also have to factor in the carbon footprint of an average American, not just their idling power output – and that includes raising and killing a lot of meat, veg, and all the concomitant transportation of said food, plus transportation of the humans, etc. Watson would still beat that by a mile, to be sure…

    But IBM has stated that they expect a Watson class system to be about as computationally intensive as the average desktop will be around 2020 (give or take a couple years). And cellphone class in 5-10 years after that, assuming IBM can keep pushing the advances in computational infrastructure the same speed we’ve kept up the past hundred years or so (and I see no reason to doubt them, especially if they can figure out a way to ask Watson ‘How do we make a faster you?*’)

    Watson doesn’t have voice rec because plenty of the clues require the human to read the clue to understand it’s true meaning – homonyms, puns, etc. Certainly IBM will be adding this, I believe they’ve stated they plan to spend the rest of the year tuning the system and adding bells and whistles before making him commercially available.

    It bears repeating, Watson is programmed to not buzz in until he’s got an answer rated ‘confident.’ Jeopardy! champs like Jennings has stated that a common tactic for champs is to buzz in as soon as the man activates the if you think you can think of the answer and use the extra seconds to find the answer.

    And congrats to IBM and Watson for such a bang-up job. It’ll be very interesting to see the uses Watson systems get put up to when other humans get their hands on them and start getting creative (or as William Gibson might say, ‘start getting lateral’)

    *Yes, this is a joke… for now.

  • Jim

    While you’re right that setting it up for voice recognition would be relatively simple, amphiox, there remains the problem that voice recognition is something that itself is in need of refinement. If you have a computer that identifies Toronto as a city in the U.S. AND might not be able to understand what you’re saying too it, it’s an inefficient system at best.

  • http://www.bnfgehbn.com Audie Metz

    but if you’re planning to browse the web alot from your PMP then the iPod’s larger screen and better browser may be important.


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