In February, 2011, three exceptionally talented competitors vied for the  title of the Ultimate Jeopardy Champion. Two of the contestants, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, were already Grand Champions of the game having won numerous competitions in the regular game and in the yearly Tournament of Champions. The final competitor was the supercomputer, Watson, developed by IBM with the aim of answering questions posed in a natural way. The contest on jeopardy was seen as an excellent way to test its abilities.


The Men

Jeopardy4Credit: Ken JenningsKen Jennings

Ken Jennings was the person who redefined the term “winner” on the game show Jeopardy. He  won more than $3,000,000  in his 75 plus appearances and also finished second in the Jeopardy Ultimate Tournament of Champions. Mr. Jennings has also competed on several other quiz shows and is the current all time money winner for all games show appearances as recognized by the Guinness Book of World records.


Brad Rutter

Brad Rutter has the distinction of being the only person to surpass the money winnings of Ken Jennings on Jeopardy. Of course, the $2,000,000 prize for winning  the Ultimate tournament of Champions helped. Brad has also wib the three most prestigious Jeopardy tournaments, the Tournament of Champions, the Million Dollar Masters Tournament, and the Ultimate Tournament of Champions. He has never been defeated by a human in any Jeopardy game.


The Machine

Despite Mr. Jennings’s impressive and Mr. Rutter’s unequalled records against human competitors, they lost convincingly to the Watson supercomputer. Developed by International Business Machines, Watson is an artificial intelligence computer system that is, obviously, capable of answering questions written in a natural manner. It combines technologies and software specifically designed for information retrieval , knowledge representation  and  reasoning that is then imparted through a natural language processing system. The machines answers are derived from a four terabyte database that includes the entire contents of Wikipedia.


Jeopardy2Credit: Joseph HenkensThe Competition

Held in February of 2011, the tournament consisted of two separate matches but the grand total of both games would determine the overall winner. While the questions were read aloud to the human competitors, they were sent as electronic text to Watson.

Interestingly, a major bone of contention between IBM, the contestants and the Jeopardy staff was how the computer would signal its intent to answer. Finally, a mechanical finger was devised that allowed the computer to signal in a manner similar to humans. The finger and software that operated it were specifically designed to preclude any efforts by the computer to anticipate. This was considered major advantage for the human players.

Watson aso suffered from the disadvantage of not recognizing the wrong answers given by the human players. Still at the end of round one of the first game, it was tied for first with Mr. Rutter. Then the computer never looked back.

At the end of day one, it had a definitive lead with over $35,000 to Mr. Rutter’s $10,000 and Mr. Jennings $5,000. By the time the match concluded, Watson left no room for doubt with a convincing $77,000 win versus less than $25,000 each for its human opponents.


The Future

The results of the IBM Jeopardy challenge are merely a trivial sidebar to the more important aspects of human-computer communication. The competition served to highlight the advances in interactivity that “non-intelligent” computers could have with humans. No one mistakes the raw computing power of Watson but experts also state categorically that it would categorically fail the Turing Test.

The Turing Test aims to demonstrate a machine’s ability to exhibit cognitive thought. It is a simple test that requires a computer to answer a series of questions in a manner that is indistinguishable from the way a human would answer them. There are dozens of variations and, while computers are advancing, none have actually passed the test.

Conversely, the “Chinese room” hypothesis states that passing the Turing test still does not demonstrate intelligence. It posits that a human being, ignorant of Chinese, can be given the same instructions as a computer to answer a series of questions in Chinese. Even if the human passes the test, it is still ignorant of and therefore does not understand Chinese. An interesting point to be sure.


Jeopardy5Credit: NASA - public domainOther Gaming Supercomputers

Watson’s success at Jeopardy is only one area where computers have proven their mettle and their superiority to humans. Computers are significantly better at “brute force” analysis than humans. In Jeopardy, the fundamental question was never really whether a computer could access the information but whether it could successfully parse the question.

Similarly, in chess, a computer can analyze millions of position, a brute force approach, and, utilizing a point-system algorithm, arrive at an acceptable strategy. This approach has worked remarkably well and computers are now considered the equals of or the superiors of the leading chess grandmasters.

Poker is another area where computers are seemingly certain to gain the upper hand. Although a game of imperfect information, poker is definitely optimized by understanding and computing percentages, a task that is ideally suited to computers. Humans still outperform computers at poker but the gap has been significantly shortened since 2010.

Other games, like Go, are not so easily strategized with a purely computational strategy. The computing power of current computers is simply inadequate to deal with the multitude of possibilities. The most current incarnations of Go computers are considered highly inept and can only defeat the weakest of human competitors.

The fundamental distinction between Go and other games like chess is that chees tends to simplify towards the endgame as pieces are removed. Go, on the other hand, increases in complexity as pieces are added to the board.


Man – R.I.P.?

While the capabilities of computers may seem inexhaustible, they only exhibit shadows of intelligence. No man knows the future but it seems reasonable to assume that the human race will not welcome their “robotic overlords” anytime soon. A prudent respect for mankind will remember that humans are capable of evolution and revolution just as are computers.