Let's be honest: Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter had slim chances of winning the IBM Jeopardy Challenge after the bludgeoning they suffered at the hands of the IBM supercomputer Watson last night (their final score is the combined total from the first two rounds). But they did have their pride to play for. We covered the match as it happened, so I won't bore you with a second play-by-play, but a few things stood out in this round.
Ken Jennings was thirsty for blood (silicon?) tonight. After struggling to buzz in faster than Watson during in the first match, Jennings was noticeably quicker in this match, buzzing in first and thinking about the correct response after. As a result, he finished with over 18,200 going into Final Jeopardy, just a few thousand dollars behind Watson's 23,440. Rutter meanwhile, was mostly invisible during this round much like Jennings was last round. But he still managed to rack up 5600.
As for Watson, it may not have been quite as dominant as last round, but seemed less confused by questions this time around, only providing nonsensical answers a couple of times. But Watson proved it was the best contestant out there. If they played 10 rounds of Jeopardy, I'd be surprised if Watson lost any more than one time.
And you know what was disappointing? The interview segment of the show. Always a source of entertainment for conversations which are nothing short of AWKWARD, Watson never got his time to shine. Alex asked Jennings and Rutter about the charities they were donating half their winnings to, but not Watson. Instead of carrying out an exchange with Alex or rattling off a pre-determined message in is creepily lifeless voice, know what we got? Some WASP-y IBM stiff who was easily 100 (maybe even 101) times less interesting than Watson.
But whatever. Unlike last night, there was actually a bit of intrigue going into Double Jeopardy. Jennings earned enough in this round that if he put his entire total for the night on the line and guessed correct, he could possibly eek out a victory against Watson. The category was 19th century authors and the clue was this:
Jennings correctly answered Bram Stoker. But his wager?
Yup, the Mormon Machine deprived us of any final drama by wagering a paltry 1000 dollars and waved the white flag by welcoming our robot overlords. Why did he do this? I think he wanted to ensure a victory over Rutter, who had previously beat him in the Jeopardy Million Dollar Challenge and also had a better show in Round 1 of this event. If you can't beat the computer, why not beat the next best human?
Not that it mattered anyways. Watson guessed correctly and wagered $US17,124, giving the supercomputers a grand total of $US77,000 after two days. Far beyond the reach of the other two. And being the smug, pretentious baster that it is, Watson just sat there, unenthused with his accomplishment, while Jennings and Rutter made fun of the thing behind its back.
What Does This Mean?
Watson's victory is a pretty significant moment for machines. But don't get too carried away and start questioning the meaning of life while searching for a leather-clad saviour to deliver us from our impending doom. I mean, the thing thinks Toronto is a US city for God's sake.
That said, Watson is proof that we're closer than ever to having machines which interact with us as effortlessly and intuitively as humans do. Its voice recognition skills aren't there yet, and it's roughly the size of 1.5 Steve Ballmers (pretty big!), but we shouldn't be discouraged. Think about the computers that were around 60 years ago - or even 30 years ago - that took up entire rooms and what they were capable of. Now, most of our smartphones are more powerful (or nearly more powerful) than that.
So in many of our lifetimes, it's likely that we'll get to experience machines more powerful than Watson, which will fit into our hands, or be integrated into our homes, cars, hospitals, androids, etc. We talk. It listens and replies. It might even be smarter than us, as IBM suggests.
This, people, is an exciting possibility.