Watson Plays Jeopardy

I watched the documentary on Nova about the IBM project to build Watson, a computer that could play Jeopardy. The technical bits are interesting, maybe even staggering in some ways, especially when you consider it’s all to do what a single human can do! It ran without being connected to the internet during the game, so they had to download and store a lot of stuff – Wikipedia, IMDB, more.

The human side was more interesting. They had to convince the show producers that this would be good TV, so they set up a mock set and brought in a comedian along with some real contestants that had been on the show, and started. It didn’t go well. Watson definitely got some right, sometimes it ran into things it didn’t “know” about like roman numerals, and sometimes the answers were just wrong. Not a little wrong. Way way wrong.

The Alex Trebek stand-in – being a comedian – cracks jokes each time Watson blows it. The project lead was wincing in the audience, visibly impacted by the snide/silly remarks from the host. You might think he had begun to think of Watson as a person,but he was thinking of how all the people on the team felt. Odd situation. Not sure if it was how it was edited or how it really played out,but going with a comedian was almost bound to lead to someone not being happy in that competitive situation.

They went off, made some changes, and finally gave it another try for real. Here’s a snippet of it:

Watson Plays Jeopardy


Watson ended up doing pretty well.

Jeopardy is a hard challenge, much more so than playing chess. They had a nice example of the complexity of Jeopardy. Imagine writing the query to figure this out:

I shot the elephant wearing my pajamas.

Who was wearing the pajamas? You, or the elephant? That’s language for you!