IBM’s Not So Super Computer

On Jeopardy this week, they’re featuring IBM’s super computer, named Watson, in a competition against two of Jeopardy’s all-time winningest human contestants. It’s really just one big commercial for IBM, and you’re forced to watch a bunch of geeks tell you how Watson is going to change the world.

And as you watch Watson answer question after question, correctly, you even start to believe the geeks . . . until Final Jeopardy. To set the scene, Watson is way ahead, and the category is “U.S. Cities.” Watch and enjoy:

Toronto? The smartest computer in the world can’t even guess a U.S. city? I love the multiple “question marks” signaling Watson has no clue. IBM, of course, has an explanation for the failure:

How could the machine have been so wrong? David Ferrucci, the manager of the Watson project at IBM Research, explained during a  viewing of the show on Monday morning that several things probably confused Watson. First, the category names on Jeopardy! are tricky. The answers often do not exactly fit the category. Watson, in his training phase,  learned that categories only weakly suggest the kind of answer that is expected, and, therefore, the machine downgrades their significance.  The way the language was parsed provided an advantage for the humans and a disadvantage for Watson, as well. “What US city” wasn’t in the question. If it had been, Watson would have given US cities much more weight as it searched for the answer. Adding to the confusion for Watson, there are cities named Toronto in the United States and the Toronto in Canada has an American League baseball team. It probably picked up those facts from the written material it has digested. Also, the machine didn’t find much evidence to connect either city’s airport to World War II. (Chicago was a very close second on Watson’s list of possible answers.) So this is just one of those situations that’s a snap for a reasonably knowledgeable human but a true brain teaser for the machine.


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