Thursday, February 17, 2011

But Watson isn't gracious

I have never been a big fan of Jeopardy!, mostly because I feel that memorizing gazillions of facts and spitting them out on cue is not an especially good use of human brain power. (Also I can't do it.)

So I had never heard of Ken Jennings or his amazing 2004 winning streak, up until this whole kerfuffle about Watson. If I had, I would probably have assumed (ungraciously) that he was a sort of stunted character, having funneled all his life force into the dubious goal of being a game-show champion.

But his article on Slate about losing to Watson is a truly lovely piece of writing. In the first place, he gently reminds us that Watson is not the plucky underdog in this story. The real winners last night were IBM shareholders. In other words, Corporate America, in one of its most behemoth-like incarnations. Innovative as Watson is, that vaguely androgynous purr is the voice of global capitalism lulling us into a charmed sleep. (This is me going off here; Jennings doesn't take the point this far.)

Reading Jennings's piece, I realized I had in fact come to think of Watson as the underdog, after watching PBS's "Smartest Machine on Earth" the other night. In fact, Watson's pluckiness really belongs to its engineers, who worked constantly for four years to bring a seemingly impossible dream to reality (a dream set in motion by watching Jennings). That's how the show frames the story, anyway. We even see how hurt one of the engineers is when the practice Jeopardy! host, a comedian hired by IBM, makes fun of Watson. The engineer's kids were hurt by the mockery when they watched the practice rounds; the engineer says, without irony, that "Watson is defenseless." So I found myself rooting for Watson to beat the humans--which is a pretty amazing bit of jiu-jitsu by IBM and NOVA. While I really do admire the engineers' accomplishment, it's important to remember on whose behalf it was accomplished.

Jennings takes his defeat with a nuanced dose of humility and humor. He uses it as an occasion to reflect on his own experience of winning, something Watson, of course, could never do:

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. [....]

During my 2004 Jeopardy! streak, I was accustomed to mowing down players already demoralized at having to play a long-standing winner like me. But against Watson I felt like the underdog, and as a result I started out too aggressively, blowing high-dollar-value questions on the decade in which the first crossword puzzle appeared (the 1910s) and the handicap of Olympic gymnast George Eyser (he was missing his left leg).

So Watson may make game-show contestants obsolete, as Jennings, not entirely humorously, predicts. But Watson will never win or lose as graciously, and with as much subtle intelligence, as Jennings demonstrates in this essay.

So the humans are still winning, if you ask me.

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