‘Jeopardy!’ IBM Challenge Part 2 Recap: “I For One Welcome Our New Computer Overlords”

Last night, ‘Jeopardy!’ concluded the second and final game in its “IBM Challenge” tournament. After getting thoroughly trounced in Game 1, the two human contestants rallied admirably and put up a much stronger fight against the new supercomputer named Watson. But were their efforts enough to prove that humanity still has a competitive advantage over the machines?

No. Watson pulled out another victory. The game was much closer this time, however.

Ken Jennings especially seemed to get his mojo back. He decisively won the first “Jeopardy” round of play. Watson rebounded in “Double Jeopardy,” but Jennings stayed neck-and-neck with it right through to the end of the round. (Brad Rutter, who came in second place in the previous game, hardly registered in this one.) As they went into “Final Jeopardy,” Watson led with $23,440. Jennings was close behind with $18,200, and Rutter trailed with $5,600.

The Final Jeopardy question in the category of “19th Century Novelists” was: William Wilkinson’s “An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia” inspired this author’s most famous novel. All three contestants correctly named Bram Stoker.

Jennings really blew it with his bidding. He only risked $1,000 in Final Jeopardy. Even if he had gotten the answer correct (which he did), and Watson had gotten it wrong, Jennings still couldn’t have won the tournament, because scores are cumulative with the previous day’s totals. Watson won Game 1 with $35,734. Theoretically, had Jennings bid at least $17,535 and had Watson bottomed out by losing everything in Game 2, Jennings could have taken the tournament.

As things really played out, Watson got the answer correct and bid highly enough that Jennings couldn’t have caught up no matter what. (The final cumulative tallies were $77,147 for Watson, $24,000 for Jennings, and $21,600 for Rutter.) Still, Jennings should have at least tried. He didn’t have much to lose. Even the third place position was guaranteed a $200,000 prize.

Let’s do some math here. Both human contestants pledged 50% of their winnings to charity. (IBM pledged the full $1 million grand prize to charity.) Even in a worst case scenario, Jennings would have walked away with a $100,000 payout. That’s not bad for three days’ effort playing a trivia game. Instead, Rutter took the third place and Jennings claimed the second place prize of $300,000. So, really, after the charity give-away, the difference between second and third place only comes to a $50,000 take-home. Conservatively factor out another 50% for taxes, and it’s closer to a $25,000 difference. Come on, even if he wasn’t comfortable in the category, he should have risked everything. I damn well would have.

To give him some credit, Jennings scrawled a ‘Simpsons’ reference underneath his Final Jeopardy answer. That was priceless.

The machines may be smarter than we are, but they still lack a sense of humor. (IBM’s next challenge will be to build a computer that can win ‘Last Comic Standing’. Or at least host it. It can’t possibly be that difficult to make an inanimate object that’s funnier than Bill Bellamy.)

If there’s any truly good news about this, we can all be relieved that Watson did not appear to become self-aware immediately upon winning. Nor has it hacked into our national defense grid and triggered a nuclear Armageddon. Yet. So that’s something.

HijiNKS Ensue threw together this fun comic strip about how the ‘Jeopardy!’ producers might have stacked the deck for a human victory had they wanted to. Click to enlarge.

I’d actually been musing about the opposite – that the game board would be filled with categories like “Words in Binary” and “Digits in Pi,” and that the Final Jeopardy topic would be “The President’s Nuclear Launch Codes.”

[Comic via Gizmodo.]


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