MAN MACHINE… IBM’s Watson finally hits Jeopardy! [but thinks Toronto is in the US…]

Isn’t technology wonderful!

IBM Aptiva + Windows 3.1 = happy me

Our very first home computer, an IBM Aptiva G60, was bought by my parents sometime in late 1994. It ran Windows 3.1 and was a perfect machine for word-processing and tetris. Anything heavier though and it would just get very stressed and a little blue in the face. An upgrade allowed for the dawn of the internet age in or around 1998.

For its day the machine was great and I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the IBM brand simply because it was their logo that I would press each evening for a few post-homework games of Bip-Bop, Mario or Solitaire before watching Crimeline or going to bed. Yes I was that kind of child.

Nowadays IBM is recognised more as a leading brand in the world of business and IT, without too much presence in the home PC market. This means the main exposure “Joe the Plumber” gets to the IBM brand are their pretty awesome TV ads.

Typical IBM TV ad, w/ trademark blue letterboxing (Aug 2010)

These are usually shot in black or white and presented with their distinctive royal blue letterboxing. The ads are always clever, tend to be pretty light-hearted and let us know how downright awesome the corporate juggernaut that is International Business Machines is.

So why the lengthy and contrived intro? Weeeell, because IBM have popped back into the news in the last few weeks for their development of a supercomputer named Watson which has been taking part in the legendary gameshow, “Jeopardy!“.

The first of the special series, “Jeopardy! The IBM Challenge“, aired last night and made for some weird viewing. Weird, but oh so compelling. Seeing how Watson was engineered to interpret the unusual syntax and phrasing of the reverse-questioning (host Alex Trebek provides contestants with the answer, they must present the question) was brilliant, with viewers at home were shown his thought-processes and the likelihood of each answer. There were also some pretty neat little packages in between the questioning showing IBM’s AI development and implementation opportunities for such a power machine. If you’ve seen any of the aforementioned IBM TV ads or some of the company’s wonderful centennial films, you’ll know what to expect from these Watson packages. [Episode one – Monday Feb 14th – of the IBM Challenge is embedded at the bottom of this post.]

Alex Trebek with contestants Ken Jennings, "Watson" and Brad Rutter.

Tonight’s episode (night two of the challenge) saw Watson dominate, taking $36k into the final round compared to the $5k and $2k acquired by the veteran champions. During the final ad break, I feared we may be weeks away from a Skynet-like autonomous robotic takeover.

This was until the “Final Jeopardy!” round however, when the question was about airports named after World War II battlefields, with the topic set to “US Cities”. Brainy old Watson answered with “Toronto????”. Both humans said “Chicago” and were correct. Woopsy. [still waiting on a video of this special TV moment…]

This massive #fail bought home the reality of how frustrating the development of these super-computers must be. You create a machine capable of using complex algorithms to work out the most likely answer to a question (or should I say question to an answer…), only to have it announcing Toronto as a city in the United States.

So hopefully that Skynet takeover is a few months away yet…

Episode 1 of the Jeopardy! IBM Challenge [2 parts]

Further reading…


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