John Henry Loses Again


Tim Moran

Watson, the Jeopardy-playing IBM supercomputer we first covered back in June, has now made its debut against real people and -- spoiler alert! -- won. The machine competed against Ken Jennings (74 Jeopardy wins in a row) and Brad Rutter ($3.25 million in winnings) and beat them by $1,000.

A couple of interesting details: the machine has to hit the same signaling buzzer that human Jeopardy! contestants must use before it answers; and key to Watson's winning ways is that it does not answer if it isn't sure it's right, which could give it an advantage over humans, who can lose money with a wrong guess.

(More on of how Watson works and the story behind its creation can be found at our previous blog post on this subject, linked above, and on IBM's own Watson site. In brief, the 80-teraflops supercomputer's "brain" scans 200 million-plus pages of data--in less than three seconds--to arrive at its answer; it is not connected to the Internet.)

As video of the contest shows, Watson isn't infallible; while it gave no wrong answers, it struggled with fill-in-the-blanks questions that required the parsing of English text. What I found most interesting about the scene was the sight of a black rectangle sporting spinning lights sitting in between two humans on the Jeopardy! set--and it really didn't look all that unusual. What does that say about it. . . and us?


13 Comments for "John Henry Loses Again"

  • David Lloyd-Jones February 21, 2011 1:35 pm

    Well done, IBM, but I think Mitch Hilger's point above is really sound. Watson is clearly a really neat step forward: we're on the verge of computers that can figger out whose luggage is whose, just by looking in phone books, or which Galicia is which by pairing up an atlas with a guess at the user's surname. Still the fact of Watson getting "1920" wrong after it had already been tried is a sign that there's still some work to be done. The knowledge handling of Watson needs to be married to the strategizing of Deep Blue. Then of course the price has to come down by a factor of 10^6~7, but there's no doubt that'll happen. -dlj.

  • roameri February 19, 2011 4:50 am

    Dear Watson: In my country, India, we have several commissions that have to go through thousands of papers to investigate all kinds of scams - fodder scam;Satyam scam;spectrum scam;rice export scam,kerosene scam,landgrab scams etc., etc. Can you help reading all this data and using your analytic powers to identify the reasons behind the scams ? If yes, you shall do a great social service. If no, you are not smarter than the scamsters. j.

  • Steven Stein February 18, 2011 4:50 pm

    When will there be a www.watson.com website where we can ask questions and get the answers.

  • Mitch Hilger February 17, 2011 11:54 am

    I didn't watch. But, I'm curious how much of the programming was tailored for the show; if it were set on the street could it answer questions? Does it really understand the context of language and the multitude of directions which could be inferred, or was that restricted for the show? I have been in the electronics business for years watching the growth. We have come far and yet, we are still a long way away from machines which are cost effective and useful to interact in society. It took years for the computer to beat a chess master and now this, but don't look for your home robot to show up at Best Buy anytime soon!

  • Dean Lyles February 17, 2011 11:26 am

    That was such a cool answer, and it didn't take a computer genius to see what implications you were making. :)

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