Watson Jeopardy! computer: Ken Jennings describes what it's like to play against a machine.

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Feb. 16 2011 11:04 PM

My Puny Human Brain

Jeopardy! genius Ken Jennings on what it's like to play against a supercomputer.

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In the final round, I made up ground against Watson by finding the first "Daily Double" clue, and all three of us began furiously hunting for the second one, which we knew was my only hope for catching Watson. (Daily Doubles aren't distributed randomly across the board; as Watson well knows, they're more likely to be in some places than others.) By process of elimination, I became convinced it was hiding in the "Legal E's" category, and, given a 50-50 chance between two clues, chose the $1200 one. No dice. Watson took control of the board and chose "Legal E's" for $1600. There was the Daily Double. Game over for humanity.

IBM has bragged to the media that Watson's question-answering skills are good for more than annoying Alex Trebek. The company sees a future in which fields like medical diagnosis, business analytics, and tech support are automated by question-answering software like Watson. Just as factory jobs were eliminated in the 20th century by new assembly-line robots, Brad and I were the first knowledge-industry workers put out of work by the new generation of "thinking" machines. "Quiz show contestant" may be the first job made redundant by Watson, but I'm sure it won't be the last.

But there's no shame in losing to silicon, I thought to myself as I greeted the (suddenly friendlier) team of IBM engineers after the match. After all, I don't have 2,880 processor cores and 15 terabytes of reference works at my disposal—nor can I buzz in with perfect timing whenever I know an answer. My puny human brain, just a few bucks worth of water, salts, and proteins, hung in there just fine against a jillion-dollar supercomputer.

"Watching you on Jeopardy! is what inspired the whole project," one IBM engineer told me, consolingly. "And we looked at your games over and over, your style of play. There's a lot of you in Watson." I understood then why the engineers wanted to beat me so badly: To them, I wasn't the good guy, playing for the human race. That was Watson's role, as a symbol and product of human innovation and ingenuity. So my defeat at the hands of a machine has a happy ending, after all. At least until the whole system becomes sentient and figures out the nuclear launch codes. But I figure that's years away.

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Also in Slate, Chris Wilson says that the next IBM supercomputer should be able to play poker. Jeremy Singer-Vine crunches the numbers on the hardest clues in Jeopardy! history. Daneil D'Addario writes about a fan-maintained database that helps Jeopardy! contestants prepare. And, lastly, Slate V recounts the untold story  of Watson's other game-show appearances.

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Ken Jennings is a 74-time Jeopardy! winner and is the author of six books, most recently the Junior Genius Guides.