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Does IBM Watson Have An Unfair Speed Advantage Over Its Jeopardy Challengers?

The machine's creators say that there are other (more human) elements too, that matter in winning the game.

Naresh Kumar
Naresh Kumar on February 18, 2011.

With the recent victory of IBM Watson over champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in the first round of Jeopardy IBM Challenge, there were murmurs of the machine having an unfair speed advantage by which it was able to hit the buzzer faster than human players. As PSFK had reported some time back, Watson stores millions of pieces of data in its brain and recognizes wordplay and oddly phrased questions, something which is essential in order to do well in Jeopardy, but does it really have an advantage over its challengers in terms of buzzer speed? Its creators say no, adding that humans have the ability to ‘ring in’ as fast has Watson does.

Wired put this question to IBM Watson researcher Eric Brown:

Wired.com: So how do you respond to critics who say Watson has an unfair advantage because it can ring in faster?

Brown: Ultimately, this is being portrayed as a human-vs.-computer competition and there are some things that computers are going to be better at than humans and vice versa. Humans are much better at understanding natural language. Computers are better at responding to signals.

That said, humans have the ability to ring in just as fast has Watson does. In our experience the best Jeopardy players time their attempts to ring in. On the Jeopardy set there is a light that comes on when the signaling devices are open and you can now attempt to ring in, but the best players have told us they don’t even look for the light, they just listen to Alex Trebek’s cadence [Watson lacks ears] and then ring in at the appropriate time.

And when you talk to Jeopardy players who have played against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, they say that those two are very fast.

IBM Watson

Wired: “IBM Watson Scientist: Speed Matters, But So Do Accuracy, Intuition”

Image courtesy Ars Technica

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