Me versus Watson: Putting myself in 'Jeopardy'

CNET contributor Katie Linendoll gets to try a round against the lightning-fast IBM computer in advance of its stint against two "Jeopardy" champs.

Katie Linendoll
So this is what it feels like to write my name in the "Jeopardy" name box. Deana Hawk

If you're anything like me, you've fantasized about being a contestant on "Jeopardy"--how you'd write your name in the name box, how much you'd wager on a Daily Double, and how you'd awkwardly banter with Alex upon your introduction. Last week I got to live my dream of playing a full "Jeopardy" game--and to make the situation even more amazing, I got to do it against Watson, the famous IBM supercomputer.

In segments to be aired starting today, Watson--which boasts nearly 3,000 Power7 processors and 16 terabytes of memory and has the ability to compute more than 30 billion operations per second-- will take on "Jeopardy" champs Ken Jennings (the winningest champion in the "Jeopardy" history) and Brad Rutter (the biggest money earner in the show's history, with more than $3.2 million).

Watson trained for its game show stint in its own faux "Jeopardy" studio at IBM Research's Yorktown, N.Y., facility . That's also where I had my chance at "Jeopardy" stardom.

Turned out Watson's a formidable challenger, having been fed massive amounts of information from a range of thesauri and encyclopedias, plus the Bible. And since a "Jeopardy" answer has to be deduced in around three seconds, Watson's response rate is lightning-fast.

Indeed, Watson rang in with blazing speed on every question posed to us--ranging on topics from international sports trophies to laundry detergent to fashion to tennis vocabulary--which gets frustrating when you actually know the answers.

I also panicked on many of the answers I knew and rang in too early (you can't buzz your answer in until an off-camera light comes on after the question is fully read), locking myself out. And then there was just pure guessing to try to stay in the game, which dug me an even deeper hole. The more frustrated I got, the more apparent Watson's efficiently emotionless rationality became.

Of course, Watson would have been even more intimidating/realistic if it were in humanoid bot form. At moments when I was getting slaughtered I resisted the strong urge to power it off from behind the podium (a central computer sat on the ground).

Katie vs. Watson
Me, in an optimistic moment. Deana Hawk

The Watson project, started in 2007, is named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson and is sustained by a team of 25 researchers. Lead researcher David Ferrucci, who was on hand to watch part of my duel, told me that Watson's level of preparedness for "Jeopardy" was determined by a series of rigorous exams that took years. He was also adamant that Watson is not a one-off gimmick.

IBM is moving forward with Q&A technologies, and he specifically noted components that could be used for the medical world. For example, Ferrucci said, Watson's ability to crunch massive amounts of information could help diagnose medical patients more rapidly and accurately.

As for my "Jeopardy" experience? I'm still reliving it. I fared well in the practice round, especially on presidential rhymes, and I felt decent about my chances, but was never really confident that I could win. And I was right.

In other words, I got smoked by a 4-year-old. Final Jeopardy: Games you have a chance at. Answer: What is the Nintendo version?

 

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