I’ve been reading a lot of interesting discussions about the amazing Jeopardy match between human champions and IBM’s Watson computer. Although I’m in no way involved in this project, it is very exciting to watch this event unfold. Some of the discussions I’ve read concern the impact of reaction time, who can get to the buzzer fastest. I recommend this analysis of how the buzzers in Jeopardy work, which explains what Watson does and what the best human players do.
But I’d ask you to try this thought experiment to see how reaction time really doesn’t matter in the larger sense.
First, let’s imagine a trivial version of Jeopardy, where the categories are “Multiplication tables up to 12×12” and similar. Questions so easy (for average adults) that winning or losing is pretty much 100% determined by skill and timing with the buzzer. This would not be a very interesting computing challenge.
But then let’s imagine playing something like Jeopardy, but where the questions are 10x more difficult. So have questions that are more obscure, require more calculation, greater recall, in general more significant thinking. In this case, no one is jumping to the buzzer, because everyone is digging deep for the answer. Essentially, take reaction time is taken out of the equation.
- “The first African contestants in the modern Olympic Games represented this African republic”
- “According to the Book of Genesis, he was the father of Mathusael”
- “This George I’s 2nd wife was Euphemia of Kuyavia”
- “In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he was the Master of Revels”
Get the idea? Ratchet up the difficulty level.
Who wins now?
I think in that case, Watson would be the clear winner. This plays to the machine’s strength’s, based on its ability to process huge amounts of data, far more and far faster than any human.
The underlying technology of Watson is not best used to give instant answers to liberal arts questions that would be covered in any freshman survey course on European history, or classical music. Those topics are used only because Jeopardy is targeted for mainstream television and needs questions of limited difficulty, sufficient to make it an exciting game for humans to play and watch. Sure, Jeopardy is more difficult than other U.S. game shows (but not as difficult as some British quiz shows), but it is still “human-scaled”. In essence, questions on Jeopardy are “dumbed-down” to match human capabilities and the format of the show. That is why I’m so excited about the future, not entertainment uses of this technology, but uses that attack and solve much harder problems, problems with greater impact in fields like medical diagnosis, law enforcement, etc.
The real excitement is not what we can do on TV game show, but how we can scale up this technology to change the world.
BTW, if you are wondering, here are the answers to the above questions:
- What is the Orange Free State?
- Who was Mehujael?
- Who was George I, King of Galacia-Volhynia?
- Who is Philostrate?