Watson's Post-Jeopardy Challenge

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Even before my parents got satellite, when their rural TV antenna produced more snow than pixels, my older brother John would play along with Jeopardy. He has the question for almost every answer. Maybe he'd never beat Ken Jennings or Brad Rutter, but who could?

I've always known that if John appeared on Jeopardy, he'd come home a winner. But, earlier this week, watching as my brother's favorite television show turned into three 30 minute commercials for IBM, I started to lose hope. What's the point of cheering for a human champion, when a computer can beat the best there ever was at Jeopardy with a final score of $77,147 to $24,000?

Okay, I get it. Programming Watson to sift through the riddles, cultural references, and colloquialisms in the average Jeopardy answer was a triumph of human intelligence.

I get it.

But, what if computers were allowed to play all our games?

Watson, come on down?? Sure, the Price is Right would have to go to commercial as the IBM engineers rolled Watson's avatar behind the skinny microphone on Contestants Row, but once it came time to bid on that Betsy Johnson dress and Valentino earrings, Watson could consult his enormous database and come up with the exact right answer.

And, how anti-climatic would it be, when the final showcase featuring a karaoke machine, pool table, and 17 foot travel trailer is revealed, and Watson quickly calculated the actual retail value?

Oh wait. That really happened with a guy named Terry Kniess in 2008.

Okay, let's take this conversation to something a little more sporty, shall we? IBM might be a long way away from programming a computer that can ride a bike, but what about driving a race car? If the relatively clunky computer in the arcade video game can win races, why couldn't a supercomputer drive a stock car to victory in NASCAR?

There would be no fear. No fatigue. No emotions getting in the way of making the right move. Watson, or maybe his name would be Junior, would win the Sprint Cup Championship year after year after year.

Kind of like Jimmie Johnson did in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Okay, maybe one man (or machine) who does something better than anyone else isn't the end of the world as we know it, but there has to be at least one human competition in which smarts and steel will do not outweigh human ingenuity.

I can picture it now, IBM's engineers strap some skis onto Watson's smug and annoyingly swirly avatar screen, and send him on his way down the slide that begins Winter Wipeout's latest course.  Finally, a challenge only humans can withstand.

I feel better already.

This segment aired on February 19, 2011.

Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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