From a drama point of view, the first episode featuring IBM’s Watson computer competing on Jeopardy! couldn’t have been better. The producers broke the first game into two pieces so they could give viewers a taste of the Watson back story on day one. So the first episode ended with a Single Jeopardy! score: Watson $5000; Brad Rutter $5000; Ken Jennings $2000. Cliff hanger!
At the beginning of the game, Watson got off to a fast start, crisply answering questions about Beatles songs and literary characters. He got the first Daily Double with his answer of “Hyde”–identifying the evil character in the Robert Louis Stevenson book The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
The humans came back in the second segment, beating Watson to the buzzer on a couple of questions that the machine knew the answers to but wasn’t quick enough to get a shot at answering. Watson showed some panache with his valiant attempt to pronounce the name of the character Jean Valjean, from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, with a French accent.
Those of you who watched the contest: What did you think?
One of Watson’s misses highlighted how difficult it is for a machine to play Jeopardy! The category was Olympic Oddities: “It was the anatomical oddity of US gymnist George Eyser who won a gold medal on the parallel bars in 1904.” Ken Jennings said “arm” and was wrong. Watson said “leg,” but host Alex Trebek ruled him incorrect because he didn’t say the gymnast’s leg was missing.
During a viewing of the tape of the show earlier today, David Ferrucci, the IBM manager who heads up the Watson project, explained that Jeopardy! is an enormously broad domain of knowledge, and some of the classifications are pretty vague. In this case, the computer very likely didn’t understand what an “oddity” is. “The computer wouldn’t know that a missing leg is odder than anything else,” said Ferrucci. Still, over time, by reading more material and playing more games, Watson could come to understand. (Would he be able to understand that he is an oddity, I wonder.)
All in all, Ferrucci was pleased with the outcome of the first day. “I had a good feeling at the end of the first show,” he said. “I thought: Everybody will realize the computer is competitive. It can play with champions. It answered some tough questions.”