'Jeopardy' III: Watson HALs his way with the humans

In the final round of "Jeopardy", Watson tries to pretend he was human, but he just couldn't make enough mistakes. He came out the winner. While humanity just sat and stared.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

It was all over bar the pouting.

Still, Watson, the IBM supercomputer that wishes to put the sheen into machine, tried to be human. This, in the final round of the IBM Jeopardy Challenge, proved largely beyond his program.

Watson had decimated the human race in Round 2, posterizing his opponents with an array of slam dunks.

In Round 3, try as he might, he couldn't buzz slow enough or make his metal-headed intuition poor enough to lose to human "Jeopardy" greats, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Even though Watson had no clue that Slovenia was now in the European Union. Even though he felt that Alberto, the haircare brand, was actually butter.

Just a few minutes into the show, the conclusion seemed foregone with the wind, when an IBM executive explained that should Watson somehow trot to victory and make the finest of humans feel like fools, he would donate his $1 million winnings to World Vision and World Community Grid. And, strangely, not to the Teach Your Kid To Be A Robocop Foundation.

However, Jennings, no fool at the publicity game, had wonderfully pre-empted Watson's magnanimity by subtly insinuating that this challenge was, well, just slightly imbalanced.

IBM's John E. Kelly III explains just how big Watson's, um, brain is. Sort of. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

In a finely judged Q&A with the Washington Post, Jennings earlier today confirmed what many had speculated was the inner truth: it's all about the buzz.

"As 'Jeopardy' devotees know, if you're trying to win on the show, the buzzer is all. On any given night, nearly all the contestants know nearly all the answers, so it's just a matter of who masters buzzer rhythm the best," said Jennings.

In case anyone still didn't get the gist of his gripe, he added: "Watson does have a big advantage in this regard, since it can knock out a microsecond-precise buzz every single time with little or no variation."

Note the use of "it," not he. "Don't be fooled here, people," Jennings seemed to say. "This thing is just a thing. Somewhere, it has an off switch."

Jennings has, perhaps, seemed the more frustrated of the humans in this challenge. Tonight, his grip on the buzzer seemed as tight as a Botoxed beak. He really went after salvation in the category of "Actors Who Direct," an area in which Watson, or his manly handlers, had apparently failed to rehearse him.

Watson foundered some more in the "What To Wear" category: hardly surprising, given the cursory attention that had been paid to his sartorial splendor.

But HAL's slightly less psychotic descendant turned out to be IBMing the Merciless. He ended up with $77,147. Even when his two humanoid opponents' scored were added together, they only came to $45,600.

The last required response was "Who is Bram Stoker?" Jennings, again the darting diplomat, added the phrase: "I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords."

Some will judge this as a fine, even historic experiment. Some will see it as the self-inflicted, myopic beginning of the end of the human race. And we're ceding ourselves to someone/thing who thinks Toronto is in the U.S. (Film evidence embedded)

But some in the real world might merely judge it as a piece of product placement. Did Watson's arrant, cold-hearted, mind-numbing, monotonic beatdown make for fine entertainment? Did it enhance the image of IBM? Or did it come across as one large and largely unconvincing piece of scripted reality?

You the people--or what's left of you--will decide.

Personally, I am looking forward to the next challenge and secretly hoping it will be a step too far for robotkind.

Who would not adore seeing an IBM robot attempting to get Vladimir Putin to agree to something? Now that would be a machine finally making itself useful. It would also be quite priceless television.