IBM's "Watson" Jeopardy! computer: it's all about the digits

hal-90001-253x300.jpgThanks to my own 13 games of Jeopardy! and the book about it and all, lots of people (including the New York Times) have asked my opinion about the whole IBM computer vs. Ken Jennings vs. Brad Rutter cage match, airing next Mon-Wed (check local listings). Let's be clear: I have no inside knowledge, and while Ken and Brad are both friends of mine, we haven't discussed the games. I'm just a former player doing color commentary before the big game.

Here's what you might not see at home: at the top tournament level, every player can figure out nearly all of the correct responses, no matter how arcane. When I was in fighting shape for the Masters tournament at Radio City in 2002, I could usually suss out at least 50 of the 61 clues in a game, and sometimes up to 55 — and I was hardly the strongest player. (The trick isn't actually knowledge — obviously! if you know me — but getting in the fast-lateral-thinking groove.) I got my butt handed to me, in fact, by a guy who eventually got his butt handed to him by Brad.

IBM wouldn't unveil their spiffy new buzzerbox unless they were sure it could solve a similar number of clues. And they definitely have a good idea of Watson's ability, after many months of honing its skills in mock games against progressively more successful real-life Jeopardy! champs. (Full disclosure: I was invited to play in the final round of mock games, but I had to drop out due to illness. Damn, that would have been fun.)

At Brad's and Ken's gods-throwing-lightning level, the difference between winning and losing usually isn't mental agility, but the ability to time the milliseconds between the moment Alex finishes the clue and one of the producers activates the buzzers, slamming your thumb down with either (a) near-perfect reflexes at the off-camera lights telling you the buzzers are go, or (b) a near-perfect guess at the off-stage producer's timing.

Since a computer can obviously react to the "go" lights more rapidly and consistently than any human, it will probably win. My two cents, anyway.

The only alternative I can imagine is if Watson is given a human-like randomness in buzzing of a few milliseconds, but there's no report I can find of any such delay. Apparently, if its algorithms generate a feeling of suave cockiness, dudebox can buzz in instantly.

Combined with Watson's inhuman inability to forget anything or stress out, I don't see how any mere primate has a prayer. (And that's a measure of the amazing accomplishment of IBM's engineers. Big applause to them. Still, the human ego has a fallback: as Ken has noted, Watson still couldn't write a clever Jeopardy! clue to save its backside bus.)

Over a three-game match, our fellow fleshbags should be seen as huge underdogs. All of which is why I truly hope one of the guys goes John Henry, using his buzzer like the fabled hammer, and pulls off a stunning upset.

Let the games begin!

PS — Brad and Ken will both be still a heck of a lot more fun to hang out with afterward, either way. Brad does improv comedy now, and Ken's blog is one of my favorite daily reads — a daily fascination with cool arcana that I can only imagine BB readers will love.