Sunday, February 20, 2011

"I'll take boring for $500, Alex"

I've been on the DL the past few days and didn't have a chance to weigh in on the -- if you want to believe the Technology Geeks -- the greatest event since sliced bread, that being the Jeopardy - IBM Watson Computer hose job.

So now I am...


One night would have been more than enough, but they dragged this thing out over three nights.

And the annoying graphic, showing the three most-likely answers the computer is considering...


But the Tech Geeks all got woodies, as evidenced by the L.A. Times tech blog:

After a "Jeopardy" viewing party at USC's Gateway Pass dormitory Tuesday for the second episode of the man vs. machine match with $1 million at stake, USC research associate professor Eduard Hovy spoke with the Technology Blog about the successor to Watson, which may or may not make future TV appearances. The viewing was hosted by IBM and USC's Information Sciences Institute and School of Cinematic Arts.

"USC didn't have a direct role in Watson -- no other institution did," Hovy said. "Now we're working with IBM, and with others, to build the successor to Watson, a new program that does deeper reasoning and inference and intelligent sort of question-answering -- and the system is called Racr."


So we asked the computer scientist the question that has been burning for many of the Technology Blog's readers and commenters -- are Watson and Racr steps toward the doomsday scenario of Skynet in the "Terminator" films, or will this lead to computers that make our lives better and potentially lazier such as in "The Jetsons"?

"I think if you're afraid of technology this is the path to Skynet," Hovy said. "But if you look and you say, 'You know, technology is there to serve us and it makes our world better. It's better to have a motorcar than a horse carriage. And it's better to have a computer and run your banking affairs than no computer and doing everything very slowly through humans and so on. It's better to have an ATM machine than having to stand in line' -- I think this is a big advance for us."

Advances for the greater good of humanity, sure...

One gigantic, three-night infomercial for IBM, spare us.

And in the "How-Gullible-Do-They-Think-We-Are" Department, while is was viewed as an error, Watson blowing a Final Jeopardy question question, I think was a sandbag, a "let the human win one" and that the computer (or its programmers) tanked it:

To the credit of IBM engineers, Watson almost always did know the right answer. Still, there were a few bloopers, such as the final Jeopardy question from yesterday (paraphrasing): "This city has two airports, one named after a World War II hero, and the other named after a World War II battle." Watson's guess, "Toronto", was just laughably bad -- Lester Pearson and Billy Bishop fought in World War I, and neither person is a battle. The right answer, "Chicago", was pretty obvious, but apparently Watson couldn't connect Midway or O'Hare with WW II.

Give me an f'ing break!

One of the panelists on yesterday's NPR radio program, Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me offered that, when the day comes that computers start hunting us down, we should all go to Chicago, as the safest city, since Watson will be sending them to Toronto.

Ken Jennings, the formidable Jeopardy champ, offered in his piece "My Puny Human Brain":

Indeed, playing against Watson turned out to be a lot like any other Jeopardy! game, though out of the corner of my eye I could see that the middle player had a plasma screen for a face. Watson has lots in common with a top-ranked human Jeopardy! player: It's very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman. But unlike us, Watson cannot be intimidated. It never gets cocky or discouraged. It plays its game coldly, implacably, always offering a perfectly timed buzz when it's confident about an answer. 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 trigged 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.

Adrian Chen at Gawker, also not impressed, had some fun with it:

Now that computers are better than humans at Jeopardy, we must quickly replace all human contestants on Jeopardy with computers. It should just be computer-vs.-computer. Maybe a special episode could be a Blackberry duking it out with an iPhone. This will free humans with freakish trivia minds from having to spend thankless hours preparing for and appearing on Jeopardy. They'll be able to use their talents in more fulfilling ways, like impressing women at parties, or helping to build even more advanced Jeopardy-playing computers.

Why stop there? IBM's next task should be developing a Jeopardy-hosting computer. (That is, if Alex Trebek isn't already a computer; it's hard to tell sometimes.)


Next, IBM AI scientists should develop Jeopardy-watching computers to replace human Jeopardy fans. This should be easy, as it will essentially be a dumber version of the Jeopardy-playing computer, disinterestedly calling out answers that are mostly wrong.


If IBM is successful, we may some day look back in horror at the days when humans were involved at all in the thankless tasks associated with producing and consuming game shows. This will be a good day.

What I don't fear is more computers on Jeopardy!.

We should groan at Jeopardy!'s greed, in whoring itself out to IBM for three days, and it'll do it again.

What say the Florida Citrus Organization decides to pony up millions of dollars so that Jennings, or some other champion, can stand next to a giant orange smiley face squeezing out the questions to Jeopardy!'s answers?

Oh wait... wait...

Even better, Budweiser pays millions to get, what else, "The King of Beers" to take on other breweries, placing the classic tall brown bottle in the middle against its competitors, hauling in even more millions for Jeopardy!.

Maybe make that one competitor, with the third player being SNL's Sean Connery-on-Jeopardy character, to torture Alex Trebek.

Bonus Riffs

(Cross-posted at The Garlic.)

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