Watson Wins, but Humanity Will Continue

By Noah Davis Comment

Watson, IBM’s super Jeopardy computer, thrashed Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in the first game of the trio’s two-match face-off for the future of humanity.

When it was over, Watson earned $35,734 in winnings, with Rutter at $10,400 and Jennings in third with $4,800.

But there’s hope for humanity. Watson missed badly on Final Jeopardy, a relatively straightforward question: “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle”

Watson missed the answer – Chicago, which Jennings and Rutter nailed – instead writing “Toronto?????” The question marks indicate the machine’s high level of uncertainty.

(The Canadian city’s major airport is named for Lester B. Pearson, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Prime Minister. Chicago boats Midway and O’Hare.)

David Ferrucci, the manager of the Watson project at IBM Research, discussed the miss, saying:

First, the category names on Jeopardy! are tricky. The answers often do not exactly fit the category. Watson, in his training phase, learned that categories only weakly suggest the kind of answer that is expected, and, therefore, the machine downgrades their significance. The way the language was parsed provided an advantage for the humans and a disadvantage for Watson, as well. “What US city” wasn’t in the question. If it had been, Watson would have given US cities much more weight as it searched for the answer. Adding to the confusion for Watson, there are cities named Toronto in the United States and the Toronto in Canada has an American League baseball team. It probably picked up those facts from the written material it has digested. Also, the machine didn’t find much evidence to connect either city’s airport to World War II. (Chicago was a very close second on Watson’s list of possible answers.) So this is just one of those situations that’s a snap for a reasonably knowledgeable human but a true brain teaser for the machine.

So about 10 points for computers, but a couple for humanity as well.

For more on beating the computer, check out Greg Lindsay’s blog. The two-time champion and author of forthcoming Aerotropolis battled Watson… and won.