My Dear Watson Isn’t So Elementary

We have discussed the mind before on this blog (an inefficient listing of some posts can be found here) — some of which eventually went into the Tomorrow’s World article “Mystery of the Mind” in the Sep-Oct 2010 issue.

Those who find the topic of the human mind interesting may be enjoying the Jeopardy! news, these days, where a computer named Watson has successfully competed against two of the game show’s most successful and popular (human) contestants: Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings.

I haven’t watched an episode, myself, but I have caught the news here and there and have seen clips.  And I do admit that it is a bit fascinating to me.  Not that the fact that a computer can process a vast amount of info, which computers do all the time (though it should be pointed out that Watson is not connected to the internet).  Rather, the fact that Watson is designed to process the Jeopardy! questions as they are given, in plain English is very interesting to me, for instance.  Way back when I was a wee laddy and the only computer language I knew was BASIC (yes, I rode a dinosaur and made fire with sticks at the time), I was inspired by a mini-version of ELIZA in BASIC to begin designing a program that would deconstruct plain English sentences into something systematic and standardized.  I remember beginning very ambitiously and ending with a rather defeated, humbled feeling.  But I learned from the effort, so it wasn’t completely profitless.

Additionally, I find it fascinating just how Watson combs through the information available to arrive at its conclusion.  A fascinating video shows some pre-game warming up and demonstrates not just Watson’s answers, but also its “runner up” ideas.  And while its answers were spot on, its second & third best answers (shown on a screen to the audience) were generally way off.  How Watson generates these lists, how it evaluates the options available, and, especially, how such a process compares to the manner in which we humans access our own collection of data — still a mystery to science — is a wonder to contemplate.

Here’s the video:

(Hat tip to No Pun Intended post, “How Does Watson Know What Watson Knows?” which was a good read.)

These factors make the Watson vs. Rutter vs. Jennings battle even more fascinating than Deep Blue vs. Kasparov (which, personally, I do not think is as notable as Deep Fritz vs Kramnik).

4 thoughts on “My Dear Watson Isn’t So Elementary

  1. If this is WATSON, what do you suppose HOLMES is like?

    Once – but only once – I got every answer right when I watched the show. If WATSON would’ve beaten me that night, it would be only because his trigger finger was even faster than mine.


    Very much appreciate this site — very informative and interesting.
    One question? — where do you get the time?!!
    Winston Gosse
    LCG Canada

  3. Teresa

    What I find fascinating is that the two men did as well as they did against the computer. In order to even have a chance they had to figure out the answer and push the button before the MC finished asking the question. It looked like Watson waited until the end of each question before answering.

  4. Mr. Wheeler & Mrs. Fischer: I do think that “trigger finger” speed is crucial. 🙂 In that pre-game game, you can see Ken Jennings thumb just a pumpin’, but not always being the first to press.

    Mr. Gosse: Thanks! Actually, I post in bursts when I get a moment. The 1611 anniversary post, for instance, I did while the kids were watching a movie one evening. The Watson post (this one) I did while taking a break at my desk. The posting helps me to keep in a “writing” mode while allowing some informalities that reduce the intimidation factor that sometimes enters in when writing for formal publication. Normally I strive to make the posting a catalyst for other writing, but I’ve failed to do that recently. (Though I hope to break my unproductive streak with a commentary today or tomorrow.) Sometimes things just get too busy, which is why there are occasional long dry spells here on the blog.

    Thanks for your kind words!

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