The Archive

Friday, December 17, 2010

Thoughts on the Jeopardy!-playing Computer

Jeopardy! announced the other day that the IBM computer "Watson" will be competing against two human opponents in three shows to be aired in February 2011. Of course, the foes will be no ordinary players: they are Ken Jennings, the 74-time champion, and Brad Rutter, who beat Ken Jennings in the "Ultimate Tournament of Champions" in 2006.

Watson is programmed to answer questions and can happen to play Jeopardy!, and it is apparently good enough to beat humans. However, there's actually a distinction to be made between making a computer that can play Jeopardy!, and making one that can beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy! The distinction is important, too, and that can be seen in a similar IBM endeavor from over a decade ago.

That would be Deep Blue, the chess-playing machine that got two cracks (as Deep Thought in 1989, when it lost 2-0; and as Deep Blue in 1996 when it lost 4-2) at champion Garry Kasparov before beating him 3 1/2-2 1/2 in a 1997 match. Deep Blue was designed to play chess, obviously, but it was built specifically to beat Garry Kasparov. Kasparov was the best player in the world at the time (and may still be, despite his retirement five years ago), which is why he was IBM's target, but in order to beat the best player in the world it was programmed to beat that particular player's style.

What does this have to do with IBM's newest adventure? Watson is meant to answer questions in natural English, and Jeopardy! is just the manner by which IBM is testing its ability to do so. And whereas there is just one step between making a chess-playing computer and a Kasparov-beating computer, Watson has two steps: from answering questions to playing Jeopardy! to beating Jennings and Rutter. The second step does is not an explicit one in the developing of Watson, and it does not seem that IBM is putting quite as much stock in Watson as it did Deep Blue.

In short, I expect the computer to finish third. It is playing the two best Jeopardy! players of all time and is not preparing to beat them specifically--IBM is just getting it to be as good as it can. (It is of note that this is only fair; regular opponents don't even know who they're playing before arriving on set.) It should make for good television at least.

More on Deep Blue
Deep Blue never played an opponent besides Kasparov in an official match, and once it beat him, it was retired--not just retired, but dismantled. And Kasparov never got a rematch, one he desperately wanted.
Of course, since Deep Blue was built about 15 years ago, if you brought an identical computer back today would stand no chance of winning, whether playing Vishy Anand (the current chess champion) or the latest edition of Fritz. The reasons should be obvious as to why a 15 year old computer is not very good  compared to a new one.

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