I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to make of Watson and the recent Man Vs. Machine Smackdown on Jeopardy but I can tell you this: I’ve never been so fascinated by something and at the same time so irritated and bored.
Just to see if I’ve got the macro-chronology correct, let me walk through it real quick. Man invents computers long ago to more efficiently store information and perform calculations, and then Man proceeds over the decades to continuously increase the efficiency of these computers, until the questions and answers to every single Jeopardy Square ever shown on television could be stored in a small device we can all fit in our pockets, and which also works as a camera and a phone.
And all the while, we have been impressed by human beings who can store lots of trivial information in their brains and access it quickly when you ask them about it. We don’t value it quite like we value athletic or musical prowess – those guys get groupies – but we value it. We make shows like Jeopardy, where one can win decent-sized chunks of money demonstrating how much trivial knowledge one can store in one’s brain.
Of course, over that period of time, the Internet arose, millions of computers networked together, sharing all of their hyper-efficiently stored knowledge with each other at near-instantaneous speeds. And the trivia world, of course, failed to really realize that this meant the end of trivia contests as we knew them.
For example, does your favorite radio station still ask trivia questions and then take caller Number Ten and then give away tee shirts or concert tickets to whoever can answer them? And how long has it taken you to realize that these are basically Googling contests followed by a lottery-type luck of the draw factor, when it comes to being Caller Number Ten?
Now, there’s a reason why you aren’t allowed to have your Blackberry up there at the podium when you are playing Jeopardy!, because that wouldn’t be impressive, googling the trivial answers. And it also wouldn’t be impressive if you had eight million trivia answers stored in the phone, and accessed them without getting online at all.
We’re talking about the efficient storage and retrieval of tiny bits of information, and you’re telling me that there is some question as to who’s better at it? Man or Machines?
Isn’t that exact function of these machines which we’ve built and improved and refined for decades?
How about another fascinating contest – Man Vs. Cars! Who is faster?!
We’ve been working on cars and computers for quite a long time, and they’re both supposed to make things easier for us. If they’re not better than unequipped human bodies at the things we designed them to do, then that would say awful, terrible things about our craftsmanship and ingenuity.
There was absolutely no question that Watson would be better at answering trivia questions. The only problem was, Jeopardy kind of prides itself on awkwardly worded queries. The idea is, they give you the answers and you provide the questions. And they’re worded kind of cryptically – sometimes they’re all about puns or homonyms or Cities That Are Also Someone’s Name.
So the only disadvantage Watson has is that he might not understand the question. So we’re not really watching a trivia contest anymore – we’re watching two humans have a trivia contest while a computer has a Question Comprehension Contest.
Watson has a real advantage the instant he understands what the hell Alex Trebek is talking about. I can’t imagine he’s allowed to go online or anything, so I assume that he has a vast memory full of trivia. Once he figures out which piece of it you want, that shouldn’t be a problem for him, getting it for you.
And the other advantage he has is that most of him isn’t even in the studio. That black rectangle is his avatar, but he’s in another room somewhere – he is another room – just packed full of Hard Drives and Computer Stuff and Whatnot. Which makes his avatar the first Jeopardy contestant I’ve ever heard of who is allowed to contact another room every question.
If I were playing against Watson, I would have another room, too, and it would just have one of my daughters in it with a laptop, and I’d hit the buzzer instantly every time and then stall for a few seconds while my daughter googled it. I’d hit the buzzer and grin a nice, easy-going grin and say, “Hmmmm, that’s a tough one, Alex it really is. But despite its difficulty, I do know the answer – well the question actually, right – hahahaha. Anyhoo. What is Petaluma, California?”
See, I’d have a little earpiece in and no one would be able to hear what my daughter was saying to me. Just like we aren’t privy to whatever Watson’s avatar is saying to his roomful of Trivia Drives.
If it doesn’t make sense to play Jeopardy against a guy with a laptop, then why does it make sense to play Jeopardy against a gargantuan laptop? Obviously the point wasn’t to pit Man Vs. Machine, but to posture that way and then sucker a bunch of bloggers into watching it.
Nice try, Jeopardy. But some of us aren’t afraid to blog about it without having watched it at all.