Jeopardy!’s Alex Trebek on Watson: “Holy Smokes, This Is Serious Stuff”

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Meet Watson, Jeopardy!’s fiercest manmade competitor. The IBM machine made headlines after it was announced that the super computer would be competing on the quiz show against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, two of the most celebrated players in the television program’s history.

Watson has the unique ability to understand natural language, a necessity when it comes to interpreting Jeopardy!’s clues. “I knew the potential was there for a great computer system that could play the game,” host Alex Trebek explained. “I didn’t give it the kind of serious thought that I should have in terms of examining the technology that was required to have a computer that will understand the nuances and subtitles that we present with our clues in Jeopardy!. It wasn’t until I saw the computer play that I thought, ‘Holy smokes, this is serious stuff.’”

Three years and a half years ago, IBM approached Jeopardy! and told them they were developing some technology that would enable a computer to play the game. The idea for Watson however, Trebek explained, was actually born much earlier when some IBM researchers were having dinner at a bar and watching Ken Jennings on his record-breaking 74 game winning streak.

Millions of dollars later, IBM had a computer that could play Jeopardy!. Because of the complex wording of the clues, a computer can’t simply search for the answer like on Google or Bing. Watson has to have the ability to piece together information that sits in its hard drive – it’s completely offline – and understand which words mean the same thing in different contexts. (More on Top 10 Man vs. Machine Moments)

The Jeopardy! team thought it was a unique opportunity and agreed to the idea, if gameplay was as fair as possible. The super computer had to show his skills against other competitors and take the qualifying quizzes. To regulate ringing in to answer a question, Watson has to press a button with a robotic appendage that is attached to him, similar to how Jennings and Rutter have to buzz in.

The only accommodations that were made was that the set was brought remotely to IBM’s upstate New York headquarters to accommodate the size of Watson, who fills an entire average sized bedroom, and the audio and video clues were taken away since Watson cannot understand spoken language.

“We didn’t know how to best prepare except making the playing field as even as we could,” Jeopardy! executive producer Harry Friedman said. “It was our understanding of the long-term benefits and goals of this technology (that made us agree to the Watson challenge),” Friedman added. “It could really help people. It kept this from being some sort of stunt. The executive producer emphasized that this is an exhibition match that will probably never happen again.

It’s not a traditional tournament, although he isn’t ruling out the possibility that Watson may face off against humans again. Humans have nothing to fear from these machines, Trebek explained – well except for one thing: “I hope one idea that does not come about is that they can use a computer to host the show,” he joked.

“I certainly don’t want that to happen.”“The debate about man versus machine has gone on for a long, long time and probably will continue long after this exhibition match is over,” said Friedman. “It’s fascinating to watch this debate as evolution of this technology unfolds.”

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