Tuesday, February 15, 2011

back in the water

Well how about if I just say don't expect too many posts? The urge struck me tonight to write so here goes..

I watched the first episode of the Jeopardy match between two of the all-time greats, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, and IBM's Watson computer. The first round ended with Brad and Watson in a tie for first, and Ken a few thousand dollars behind.

At first it seemed like Watson was going to run away with the match. I sat feeling unsettled about the whole thing - it was like the best that humans could do were mere feeble attempts at combating this supercomputer. But then Ken and Brad got back into the game and Watson exposed its quirks in programming logic.

While I'm sure the computer has an unbelievably extensive and comprehensive database from which to decipher an answer, the trick is to be able to interpret the question properly. I noticed some of the question categories were more suited to being understood by a computer than others because the questions were more straightforward. For example, one of the categories asked you to identify the person referred to in various Beatles song lyrics. It would seem to me that if you had all of the lyrics programmed in your database then it would be a pretty easy thing to do a google-like search on the lyrics, which would find you the song, and then you could get the name from there.

On the other hand, that would also require that Watson had been programmed that way, to be able to identify a name versus a regular word. Our minds can do it because we can distinguish a name (like Lady Madonna or Hey Jude) from experience, but how would a computer do that? I was wondering if the programmers had a database of names, which Watson would have to then find a match between those names and a word (name) appearing in the lyrics. Or were names and other proper nouns identified when entered in the database?

It then becomes a matter of not only the way the question was worded, but how the computer was programmed to interpret the question.

Even if Watson doesn't win, I envision it (I deliberately say "it" instead of "him") becoming better and better at the task.

Then I thought about the day when there will be a basketball or baseball matchup between a robot and human team. The humans will probably womp the robots at first, but as the robots are fine-tuned, eventually they will emerge victorious, to the point where no human team can compete.

You'll then have robot leagues and human teams will be relegated to informal matches where the participants recall the good old days when real people used to play the sport and make money off of it.

Me, I'd be interested in watching robot roller derby, or robot wrestling from the Olympic Auditorium - especially the tag teams, and the locker room interviews. That would be fun watching the robot Freddie Blassie.


Anonymous said...

Watson had the advantage of being able to buzz in almost instantaneously after getting the answer, whereas humans have that fraction of a second between acknowledging the answer in our brain and hitting the buzzer.

Humans can guess the answer by figuring out the Jeopardy "clue within a clue," but I suppose the programmers may have figured a way for Watson to learn those tricks, too.

Rickie Miyake said...

I was going to say the same thing - Watson had an unfair advantage. I am not sure at exactly what point contestants are allowed to press the buzzer but if you are a machine, you can be programmed to cycle about 100 times a second to check to see if the time to answer has started. How can you compete with that? I saw Ken and Brad both looking frustrated because they were clicking but Watson had beat them to the punch. Well, the advantage humans still have is that it is legal to pull the plug on a machine..

I was thinking about a robot sports team, especially basketball: the advantage they would have would be to operate in telepathy mode. Same with football. They would be able to communicate much more efficiently with each other on the playing field. I think humans would have to even things up by requiring them to compute via 56k phone modem.