It's Official: The Computer's Smarter

The IBM supercomputer named Watson has beaten two Jeopardy! champions in a three-night marathon. The computer was awarded a $1 million prize, but the BBC reports that “the victory for Watson and IBM was about more than money. It was about ushering in a new era in computing where machines will increasingly be able to learn and understand what humans are really asking them for. Jeopardy is seen as a significant challenge for Watson because of the show’s rapid-fire format and clues that rely on subtle meanings, puns, and riddles; something humans excel at and computers do not.” With his final answer, Ken Jennings, one of the human competitors and the winner of 74 consecutive Jeopardy! shows (a record), wrote, “I for one welcome our new computer overlords.” [%comments]

Andreas Moser

This Watson scares me.

Ian Kemmish

I always thought the reason for choosing Jeopardy was that the things which make it hard for humans - syntactic gymnastics and lots of irrelevant information - are things which it is easy for a computer to ignore.

As a concrete example from the show in question: you had to read an entire screenful of waffle to realise the question was actually: "Find a sport named Modern ________". A computer that was merely looking for important nouns wouldn't have to worry about the waffle at all.

Most of the questions I have seen from this program seem to fall into the "what word links these two words" category of IQ test question. Again, simple if you have a nice big database to search.

James V

I don't know if this is a new devopment. We have had the capability of building machines and computers with superior specialist abilities for a while now.

If you really want to impress me, build a computer that laughs at my jokes or cries during a sappy movie, and doesn't necessarily knows why.


Computer was faster. Don't recall the human champions offering "Toronto" as a US city.


No, the computer is faster.


The competition was absolutely geekalicious!


What most people don't realize is that Watson was fed the information electronically. So by the time Alex finished reading the question Watson had already recieved it seconds ago and already had the answer. So it wasn't a fair fight. In order for it to be fair, Watson needs to be able to read or understand speech. If the players were able to get the questions seconds in advance they could probably search the internet and come up with the correct answers too!


That's computer's brain is no match for our big sticks and heavy rocks!


I went to the IBM site to see what applications they have in mind for such a machine. They feel Watson will be great at data analysis and customer service... great! those are my jobs! Watson's a jerk - lol


But can Watson drive a car? Computers can be programmed to do a limited subset of tasks. They lack a certain adaptive neurological quality that is what turned monkeys into Homo Sapiens.


I don't think it was a fair fight because watson could click in quicker. Most of the times, the other 2 knew the answer, but couldn't outclick the computer...


Although I didn't see the show, I read that the computer crashed and was rebooted. (See That required a human, so the "computer" did not win.


For those who didn't watch, in final jeopardy on the first day Watson answered "Toronto" for a clue beginning with "This US city..." That's not smart. The Watson design seems to use some clever tricks intrinsic to trivia questions to arrive at statistically likely responses. From what I can tell, the algorithms have primitive accounting for or insight into syntax or semantics of human speech, if any at all. We're still a long way from a reasoning, truly conversing computer.

I also agree with the comments about Watson's apparent advantage in effectively getting a head start on the clues. There was a certain arbitrariness to that as I guarantee the two contestants also knew most if not all the responses that Watson got. A half-second handicap on Watson (or removal of a handicap from the human contestants) may have changed the results of the match greatly! I suspect Ken would have won.


I wonder how quickly Watson might have put a question to the answer, "This company helped the Nazis develop better ways of cataloging its genocide victims."


Watson show great potential in data memory heavy tasks, such as in the medical field...

THink of a super WebMD that has the ability to know taht a headache and sniffles probably is more likely to mean sinus infection than a frontal lobe tumor....


Two reasons it was an unfair game.
- Watson could click in quicker. (And we knew computers could do that; you don't need a "computer overlord")
- Since Watson could click in faster, when it did not click in, the two human contestants had to play against each other and split the points. It was more a sequential two-player game than a simultaneous three-player game. In other words, Watson could have lost against a single human accumulating all the points (or two Watsons could have lost against one human).

Although the linguistic capabilities of Watson are interesting and potentially very useful, in terms of man vs. machine, this is no more significant than Deep Blue's defeat of Kasparov. Largely brute force.

Eric H

I'd like to see the three of them all take a test with a full round of Jeopardy clues... I think Brad and Ken would be able to answer more questions correctly.

That'd control for the whole buzzer issue everyone's talking about.


I agree with many of the posters that what we learned is that the computer is faster, not necessarily "smarter". I was lucky enough to actually be on the show some years ago, and the timing of the button-push is EVERYthing. In the shows I taped and watched (which is an admittedly small sample, but I would hazard a guess that other contestants will confirm this), all three contestants knew the answers for the overwhelming majority of the questions, it was who was able to buzz in first that made the difference.

Bruno P

According to Wikipedia, there are several Torontos in the US:
- Toronto, Illinois, located south of Springfield, Illinois and to the west of Lake Springfield
- Toronto, Indiana
- Toronto, Iowa
- Toronto, Kansas
- Toronto, Missouri
- Toronto, Ohio
- Toronto, South Dakota
- Toronto, an alternate name for Tamo, Arkansas

Briane Pagel

Most people take issue with the fact that a computer could win and either point out that humans programmed it, or that it messed up on some answers. Guille comes closest to Watson's true advantage: Watson's electrical impulses transmitting knowledge moved anywhere from 200 to 3 million times faster than nerve impulses; simply put, Jennings & the Other Guy were starting from further behind to push their buzzer, putting them at a disadvantage:

It's better explained here:

So the computer is faster at reacting to what it knows, and it's a good job of programming to move from "Garbage In Garbage Out" to "Puns in, logic out." But not a leap forward.